Republicans have accomplished what Democrats and unions never could: they’ve made the National Labor Relations Board a household name. The NLRB, which in the Bush era churned out anti-union rulings in obscurity, now stars in stump speeches, Congressional hearings and TV ads. The day after the Iowa Caucus, Mitt Romney launched a South Carolina TV ad condemning the NLRB as “stacked with union stooges selected by the president.” He lost the state to Newt Gingrich, who promised South Carolinians that he would seek to unilaterally eliminate the agency.
On New Year’s Eve, labor was bracing for the NLRB, which interprets and enforces labor law, to be rendered comatose for 2012. An expiring appointment was set to leave the board one member short of a quorum, and thus unable to rule on any cases. Senate Republicans had promised to prevent any new appointments. But Obama acted to keep the agency’s lights on, making three new NLRB recess appointments in defiance of Republican claims that the Senate was in session.
With Obama’s re-election uncertain and pro-labor legislation stillborn, the NLRB’s actions this year may represent the last chance for years at improving the legal regime facing workers seeking to extract a measure of justice from the 1 percent. Obama’s appointees did enough last year—investigating aerospace giant Boeing, modestly reforming union election rules, reversing some Bush precedents—to guarantee the hatred of the anti-union right. But labor and its advocates will judge the board on whether it seizes three key opportunities over the coming year.
First, there are workers across America waiting for the NLRB to remedy alleged crimes by their employers. One of these workers is Elvis Alvira, a Long Island technician who says he began organizing a union at T-Mobile after a manager’s favoritism forced him to work an hour away from his house while his wife was at home coping with a high-risk pregnancy. Alvira and the majority of his fifteen co-workers filed a petition with the NLRB last May seeking to join the Communications Workers of America.
T-Mobile responded with a series of legal challenges that postponed the election for months. Alvira and the CWA say that delay bought the company seven months to run a classic anti-union campaign: mandatory anti-union meetings, raises and promotions to sway ambivalent workers, and firings of union supporters. In December, CWA lost the election. “The anti-union campaign the company put together, along with the eight months waiting for the doggone election, is really what killed it,” says Alvira. “That whole process, it’s broken…. They were able to play the NLRB.”
In cases like these, time is on management’s side—discouraging pro-union activists, distracting their co-workers and lending ill-gotten employer victories the air of legitimacy. Under normal circumstances, the NLRB’s process is painfully slow, but its backlog swelled after a 2010 Supreme Court ruling threw out hundreds of decisions reached when the board had only two members, forcing the current board to take them up again. To expedite the process, the NLRB could make greater use of its injunction power, which forces faster resolution of urgent misconduct. In January, the board issued its first injunction of the year, against Renaissance Equity Holdings LLC, owner of an apartment complex in Brooklyn that was accused of illegally locking porters and handymen out of their jobs. But there are hundreds of such cases waiting for NLRB judgment. CWA President Larry Cohen says Obama’s appointees “need to put themselves in the shoes of these workers,” and clear the backlog, even “if they have to work day and night.”