Inside the Trump Administration’s Plan to Shrink the NLRB

Bruce Vail January 31, 2018

U.S. President Donald Trump stands in the colonnade as he is introduced to speak to March for Life participants and pro-life leaders in the Rose Garden at the White House on January 19, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Labor rights advo­cates are alarmed by a pro­pos­al to cen­tral­ize more con­trol of the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board (NLRB) at the agency’s Wash­ing­ton, D.C., head­quar­ters and shrink its net­work of region­al offices. Wide­ly viewed as anoth­er effort by appointees of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump to reverse some union-friend­ly poli­cies pro­mot­ed by Oba­ma appointees, the pro­pos­al is a step toward an even small­er role for the NLRB in pro­tect­ing work­ers’ rights, these advo­cates charge.

News of the pro­pos­al leaked out to media out­lets in mid-Jan­u­ary, first to the Dai­ly Labor Report and then to the The New York Times. The news reports focused on objec­tions to the pro­pos­al by NLRB staff mem­bers at the agency’s 26 region­al offices. Some of those staffers would be demot­ed, or lose their jobs entire­ly, if the pro­pos­al is imple­ment­ed by NLRB Gen­er­al Coun­sel Peter B. Robb.

Trump appointee Robb is a man in a big hur­ry” to remake the NLRB into an agency more respon­sive to the anti-union demands of con­ser­v­a­tive Repub­li­cans and busi­ness inter­ests, says William B. Gould IV, a for­mer NLRB chair­man now teach­ing law at Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty. He looks to be seiz­ing con­trol of the com­plaint process,” at the region­al lev­el, Gould tells In These Times. That’s ter­ri­bly impor­tant because it is the region­al offices that are the great strength of the NLRB … The region­al offices are where a union shop stew­ard or a legal prac­ti­tion­er can go to have com­plaints han­dled in a pro­fes­sion­al way.”

Robb, appoint­ed by Trump in Sep­tem­ber of last year and sworn in Nov. 17, comes to the post with strong anti-union cre­den­tials. As described by The New York Times, he was appoint­ed after a career large­ly spent rep­re­sent­ing man­age­ment, includ­ing han­dling part of the Rea­gan admin­is­tra­tion’s lit­i­ga­tion against the air traf­fic con­trollers’ union that waged an ille­gal strike in 1981. Most labor his­to­ri­ans say the gov­ern­men­t’s hard line in fir­ing the con­trollers con­tributed to orga­nized labor’s decline…”

Robb’s pro­pos­al comes on the heels of recent deci­sions by the five-mem­ber board to roll back some Oba­ma-era ini­tia­tives that favored unions. Those deci­sions were more explic­it­ly polit­i­cal, com­ing after votes by board mem­bers in which Repub­li­can Par­ty appointees nar­row­ly pre­vailed over Demo­c­ra­t­ic appointees. As gen­er­al coun­sel to the agency, Robb is not a board mem­ber, but rather a White House appointee in charge of admin­is­ter­ing the day-to-day affairs of the agency under the gen­er­al direc­tion of the Board members.

Accord­ing to Michael C. Duff, a pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wyoming Col­lege of Law, the NLRB votes and the actions by Robb are of a piece with the Trump agen­da to down­grade the agency as a defend­er of labor rights as spelled in the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act.” A for­mer NLRB staff lawyer him­self, Duff tells In These Times that I don’t have a good feel­ing about what is going on. There is a sense that the agency is being hol­lowed out.”

You get a sense that they [Repub­li­can appointees] are going to reverse every­thing,” in NLRB pol­i­cy that is favor­able to work­ers, Duff con­tin­ues. As a for­mer staffer who is still in reg­u­lar con­tact with some of his NLRB col­leagues, Duff says the sit­u­a­tion is prob­a­bly more dra­mat­ic than it looks … [The trend] is essen­tial­ly a repu­di­a­tion of labor law as we know it.”

Part of the hol­low­ing out” process is cut­ting the bud­get of the agency. Dai­ly Labor Reports Lau­rence Dubé report­ed last year that a 6‑percent pro­posed cut would mean the elim­i­na­tion of 275 jobs from the agency’s staff. The bud­get has not been final­ized, but staff cuts are expect­ed in the com­ing year, and may con­tin­ue through­out the Trump admin­is­tra­tion, pre­dicts Duff.

Burt Pearl­stone, pres­i­dent of the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board Union, says the staff union has no com­ment on Robb’s pro­pos­al at this time. He tells In These Times that the exec­u­tive com­mit­tee of the staff union may take up the issue at its next sched­uled meet­ing, by may also wait until Robb’s pro­pos­als are more formalized

The staff union rep­re­sents more than 700 NLRB employ­ees in the region­al offices and a sec­ond inde­pen­dent union, the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board Pro­fes­sion­al Asso­ci­a­tion (NLRB­PA), rep­re­sents many staff mem­bers at Wash­ing­ton, D.C., head­quar­ters. No rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the NLRM­PA could be reached for comment.

Robb’s pro­pos­al to demote employ­ees and con­sol­i­date region­al offices was out­lined in a con­fer­ence call Jan. 11, in which Robb described the plan to NLRB mid-lev­el admin­is­tra­tors. Accord­ing to Gould, the admin­is­tra­tors were not pro­vid­ed with a writ­ten ver­sion of Robb’s pro­pos­al, but were alarmed enough to respond with a writ­ten objec­tion that has been pub­lished by Dai­ly Labor Report.

As you can imag­ine, the infor­ma­tion you pro­vid­ed to the Region­al Direc­tors has cre­at­ed much uncer­tain­ty and has dis­heart­ened us … It was unclear to us how many Dis­tricts you envi­sion, how many Region­al Offices would remain, how many Region­al Direc­tors would remain in that posi­tion, what the super­vi­so­ry ratio would be, and when you envi­sion remov­ing Region­al Direc­tors from the Senior Exec­u­tive Ser­vice … How­ev­er, any antic­i­pat­ed changes must be thought­ful­ly con­sid­ered so that the great work of the Agency remains. We would like to work with you in devel­op­ing changes that would be appro­pri­ate to meet our chal­lenges,” the NLRB staffers wrote.

The NLRB has a lot of prob­lems as an agency. The num­ber of cas­es they han­dle is way down from when I start­ed work at the Philadel­phia region­al office (in 1997), but there are still not enough peo­ple to han­dle the work load,” com­ments Duff.

Pay freezes and gov­ern­ment shut downs have an effect [on morale],” Duff con­tin­ues. From what I am hear­ing now, things are actu­al­ly worse than you think.”

Bruce Vail is a Bal­ti­more-based free­lance writer with decades of expe­ri­ence cov­er­ing labor and busi­ness sto­ries for news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Dai­ly Labor Report, cov­er­ing col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing issues in a wide range of indus­tries, and a mar­itime indus­try reporter and edi­tor for the Jour­nal of Com­merce, serv­ing both in the newspaper’s New York City head­quar­ters and in the Wash­ing­ton, D.C. bureau.
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