House Republicans Vow To Do “Everything We Can” To Roll Back Labor Law Gains

Elizabeth Grossman March 1, 2017

“At a time when workers’ wages are stagnant and protections are being eroded, it’s important to remind people that many protections they probably take for granted, like the 40-hour work week, only became reality thanks to unions’ hard-fought battles,” said Rep. Carol Shea-Porter. “Now more than ever, we need a strong NLRB to defend these victories.” (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

House Repub­li­cans have long sought to under­mine the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board (NLRB), claim­ing it destroys jobs, chills employ­er free speech and makes life hard­er for busi­ness­es, gen­er­al­ly. The House Com­mit­tee on Edu­ca­tion and the Work­force con­tin­ued that attack last month, hold­ing a sub­com­mit­tee hear­ing, enti­tled Restor­ing Bal­ance and Fair­ness to the Nation­al Rela­tions Board.”

Chaired by Rep. Tim Wal­berg, a Repub­li­can from Michi­gan, the hear­ing focused on the NLRB’s recent joint employ­er stan­dard, its recog­ni­tion of so-called micro-unions and the board’s new elec­tion rules, which Wal­berg called an ambush elec­tion” rule.

We have repeat­ed­ly seen the Oba­ma NLRB over­turn long-stand­ing labor poli­cies and put in place new poli­cies designed to empow­er spe­cial inter­ests,” Wal­berg said in his open­ing state­ment. In the weeks and months ahead, we will do every­thing we can to turn back this failed, activist agen­da and restore bal­ance and fair­ness to the board.”

Coun­ter­ing this, com­mit­tee Democ­rats argued that the NLRB’s role in sup­port­ing work­ers’ col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights is essen­tial to improv­ing wages, ensur­ing ben­e­fits and decreas­ing income inequal­i­ty. They, and labor advo­cates, say the NLRB poli­cies Repub­li­cans oppose are impor­tant respons­es to the cur­rent employ­ment landscape.

The assault on the NRLB falls in line with broad­er Repub­li­can and right-wing efforts to dis­em­pow­er the NLRB, such as those out­lined in The Her­itage Foundation’s A Blue­print for Bal­ance: A Fed­er­al Bud­get for 2017 and the House Free­dom Cau­cus’ First 100 Days: Rules, Reg­u­la­tions, and Exec­u­tive Orders to Exam­ine, Revoke, and Issue.” Their rec­om­men­da­tions include undo­ing the joint employ­er stan­dard, which puts both staffing agen­cies and employ­ers at the same bar­gain­ing table with employ­ees, and mov­ing to defund the NLRB based on declin­ing union membership.

Accord­ing to sub­com­mit­tee rank­ing mem­ber Rep. Gre­go­rio Sablan, from the North­ern Mar­i­ana Islands, there have been 25 hear­ings and [bill] markups focused exclu­sive­ly on weak­en­ing the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act” dur­ing the past three ses­sions of Congress.

When you con­sid­er that pri­vate sec­tor unions rep­re­sent a mere 6.4 per­cent of the work­force, it is trou­bling that the Com­mit­tee has direct­ed so much time on this small inde­pen­dent agency. But attacks on the NLRB are what they are — a proxy for attacks on unions,” said Sablan.

NLRB essen­tial to non-union work­ers, too

So what’s the reality?

It’s not a very big agency, but his­tor­i­cal­ly a very impor­tant one,” The Cen­tu­ry Foun­da­tion fel­low Moshe Mar­vit says about the NLRB, which was estab­lished in 1935 with Pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roosevelt’s sign­ing of the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act (NRLA). That impor­tance has not dimin­ished since the NLRB’s ear­ly days, explains Susan Davis, attor­ney with Cohen, Weiss and Simon, who tes­ti­fied at the hearing.

With income inequal­i­ty at an all-time high and so much of this nation feel­ing finan­cial pres­sure and inse­cu­ri­ty, now more than ever, employ­ees’ rights to col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing must be pro­tect­ed. In enact­ing the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act, Con­gress rec­og­nized that strong unions were a crit­i­cal com­po­nent of re-build­ing a mid­dle class in this coun­try, and his­to­ry has borne that out,” Davis said at the hearing.

The medi­an week­ly earn­ings for union mem­bers last year was $1,004, com­pared to $802 for non-union work­ers, accord­ing to the Bureau of Labor Sta­tis­tics—a poten­tial annu­al dif­fer­ence of $10,504. Union mem­bers also tend to have bet­ter ben­e­fits, includ­ing health insur­ance, pen­sions, paid sick leave, hol­i­days and vaca­tion. But the NLRB is also vital to the more than 90 per­cent of U.S. pri­vate sec­tor work­ers with­out union rep­re­sen­ta­tion, says Nation­al Employ­ment Law Project gen­er­al coun­sel and pro­gram direc­tor Cather­ine Ruckelshaus.

The rea­son the NLRB is so impor­tant today is because of its required scope to pro­tect work­ers who are inter­est­ed in engag­ing in con­cert­ed activ­i­ty — to come togeth­er, ask ques­tions, advo­cate for bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions, seek pro­tec­tive equip­ment or join a union,” said Ruck­elshaus. It actu­al­ly ends up pro­tect­ing a lot of work­ers who are not in a union.”

As the NLRB explains, its mis­sion, as set out by the NLRA, is to pro­tect the rights of pri­vate sec­tor employ­ees to join togeth­er, with or with­out a union, to improve their wages and work­ing conditions.”

Noth­ing in the Act says you have to be in a union to exer­cise those rights,” said Celine McNi­cholas, Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy Insti­tute (EPI) labor coun­sel. The argu­ment that you hear a lot from Con­gres­sion­al Repub­li­cans, and we heard it at the hear­ing, is that few­er and few­er peo­ple are mem­bers of unions and that makes the board irrel­e­vant. But increas­ing­ly there’s a lot of action around increas­ing the min­i­mum wage — peo­ple com­ing togeth­er with their cowork­ers — that activ­i­ty is cov­ered by the [Nation­al Labor Rela­tions] Act.”

Work­er safe­ty and labor rights at stake

At the hear­ing, Repub­li­cans and three of the four wit­ness­es (Nation­al Right to Work Legal Defense Foun­da­tion vice pres­i­dent and legal direc­tor Ray­mond LaJe­unesse, Jr., attor­ney Kurt Larkin and Reem Aloul, own­er of a home­care fran­chise who spoke on behalf of the Coali­tion to Save Local Busi­ness­es) stressed how they con­sid­er recent NLRB rul­ings bur­den­some to employers.

Aloul called the joint employ­er stan­dard one of the reg­u­la­to­ry out­rages of the last sev­er­al years,” say­ing it pre­vents fran­chisees like her­self from work­ing with their par­ent com­pa­nies and grow­ing their busi­ness­es. How­ev­er, EPI’s McNi­cholas explains that what the joint employ­er stan­dard is real­ly about is who should be at the bar­gain­ing table” when it comes to labor nego­ti­a­tions and who’s on the hook when that goes afoul of the NLRA.”

The joint employ­er stan­dard, explains Mar­vit, is more and more impor­tant every day when so many work­ers aren’t employed direct­ly by the employ­er they work for. They might show up at an office or a ware­house but that’s not their employ­er. Their employ­er is a staffing agency.” The num­ber of peo­ple work­ing through staffing or temp agen­cies is at an all-time high.

It’s imper­a­tive that staffing agen­cies and host employ­ers col­lab­o­rate to ensure the safe­ty of work­ers,” says George Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty envi­ron­men­tal and occu­pa­tion­al health pro­fes­sor David Michaels, who served as assis­tant sec­re­tary of labor for occu­pa­tion­al safe­ty and health dur­ing the Oba­ma administration.

Larkin and LaJe­unesse also took aim at the NLRB’s new elec­tion rules designed to remove unnec­es­sary delays and what the board calls bar­ri­ers” to union elec­tions. Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Phil Roe, a Repub­li­can from Ten­nessee, called the rules a solu­tion look­ing for a prob­lem.” LaJe­unesse said they put an aver­age work­er” at a dis­ad­van­tage against a pro­fes­sion­al union organizer.”

Larkin and LaJe­unesse also argued against the NLRB’s recog­ni­tion of micro-unions, which allows sub­sets of employ­ees at large work­places like depart­ment stores or uni­ver­si­ties to union­ize, say­ing it makes it hard­er for employ­ees to oppose union­iza­tion and union dues. This, said Larkin, has the poten­tial to par­a­lyze employ­ers in end­less negotiations.

The board has done a lousy job of pro­tect­ing the rights of pri­vate sec­tor employ­ers,” said LaJe­unesse. The solu­tion,” he said, is a nation­al right-to-work law.

Ear­ly last month, Reps. Joe Wil­son, from South Car­oli­na, the state with the low­est union mem­ber­ship rate, and Steve King, from Iowa, where the leg­is­la­ture is work­ing to low­er recent­ly raised coun­ty min­i­mum wages, intro­duced a nation­al right-to-work bill (H.R. 785).

But, said com­mit­tee mem­ber Rep. Car­ol Shea-Porter, a Demo­c­rat from New Hamp­shire, after the hear­ing, This week Amer­i­can work­ers who know how impor­tant it is to defend the NLRB are see­ing a ray of hope from my home state, New Hamp­shire, where our leg­is­la­ture just killed a right-to-work pro­pos­al with a bipar­ti­san vote. What worked in New Hamp­shire can work on the fed­er­al lev­el, too.”

At a time when work­ers’ wages are stag­nant and pro­tec­tions are being erod­ed, it’s impor­tant to remind peo­ple that many pro­tec­tions they prob­a­bly take for grant­ed, like the 40-hour work week, only became real­i­ty thanks to unions’ hard-fought bat­tles,” said Shea-Porter. Now more than ever, we need a strong NLRB to defend these victories.”

Eliz­a­beth Gross­man is the author of Chas­ing Mol­e­cules: Poi­so­nous Prod­ucts, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chem­istry, High Tech Trash: Dig­i­tal Devices, Hid­den Tox­i­cs, and Human Health, and oth­er books. Her work has appeared in a vari­ety of pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing Sci­en­tif­ic Amer­i­can, Yale e360, Envi­ron­men­tal Health Per­spec­tives, Moth­er Jones, Ensia, Time, Civ­il Eats, The Guardian, The Wash­ing­ton Post, Salon and The Nation.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH