This Lawyer Helped Reagan Bust the Air Traffic Controllers Union. Now Trump Wants Him on the NLRB.

Michael Arria September 21, 2017

Members of PATCO, the air traffic controllers union, hold hands and raise their arms as their deadline to return to work passes. All strikers were fired on the order of President Reagan on August 5, 1981. (Photo: Getty Images)

For­mer Pres­i­dent Ronald Rea­gan had a long his­to­ry of clash­ing with orga­nized labor, but his most infa­mous moment came in 1981, when he bust­ed the Pro­fes­sion­al Air Traf­fic Con­trollers Orga­ni­za­tion (PAT­CO) and fired more than 11,300 air traf­fic con­trollers who were on strike. This act weak­ened the pow­er of U.S. unions and set the stage for an all-out assault on orga­niz­ing rights.

Thir­ty-six years lat­er, Reagan’s lead attor­ney in the air traf­fic con­trollers case is poised to make deci­sions about thou­sands of unfair labor prac­tices through­out the country.

As antic­i­pat­ed, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has nom­i­nat­ed the man­age­ment-side labor attor­ney Peter Robb, of Downs Rach­lin Mar­tin in Ver­mont, to serve as gen­er­al coun­sel for the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board (NLRB). This is a four-year posi­tion, and the indi­vid­ual who holds it is respon­si­ble for inves­ti­gat­ing unfair labor prac­tices. Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion gen­er­al coun­sel Richard Griffin’s term expires this Novem­ber and, if con­firmed, Robb would take over the position.

In 1981, Robb filed unfair labor prac­tice charges against PAT­CO on behalf of the Fed­er­al Labor Rela­tions Author­i­ty (FLRA) after a court ruled that the air traf­fic con­trollers’ strike was ille­gal. The FLRA case led to the decer­ti­fi­ca­tion of PAT­CO, and Rea­gan sub­se­quent­ly banned most strik­ing work­ers from fed­er­al ser­vice for their rest of their lives.

Reagan’s move set a new prece­dent for employ­ers, embold­en­ing them to attack labor more open­ly. In an inter­view with The Real News Net­work from 2014, Joseph McCartin, George­town his­to­ry pro­fes­sor and author of Col­li­sion Course: Ronald Rea­gan, the Air Traf­fic Con­trollers, and the Strike that Changed Amer­i­ca, explained the long-term impact. When Ronald Rea­gan replaced the air traf­fic con­trollers [in] 1981, it was still not com­mon for Amer­i­can employ­ers in the pri­vate sec­tor to deal with strikes by try­ing to break them and by per­ma­nent­ly replac­ing work­ers who’d gone out on strike,” said McCartin, Employ­ers saw that Rea­gan was able to do this and, in effect, get away with it. Many pri­vate-sec­tor employ­ers took a sim­i­lar­ly hard line when work­ers went out on strike in the pri­vate sector.”

Robb’s con­nec­tions to union bust­ing cer­tain­ly don’t end with the land­mark PAT­CO case. In 2014, he was hired by the Domin­ion Nuclear pow­er plant when the Inter­na­tion­al Broth­er­hood of Elec­tri­cal Work­ers (IBEW) began orga­niz­ing work­ers. The Downs Rach­lin Mar­tin web­site con­tains a blurb boast­ing that Robb rep­re­sent­ed a major nation­al cor­po­ra­tion in a Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board rep­re­sen­ta­tion case pro­ceed­ing, which had 34-days of hear­ing over 3 months to resolve 80 con­test­ed clas­si­fi­ca­tions cov­er­ing hun­dreds of employees.”

In an inter­view this Sep­tem­ber, John Fer­nan­des, a busi­ness man­ag­er for IBEW Local 457, told Bloomberg BNA that Robb rep­re­sent­ed used scorched earth” tac­tics to thwart the orga­niz­ing efforts. Fer­nan­des says the plant added work­ers to the pro­posed unit in order to water down the union vote and sent videos of man­agers explain­ing the dan­gers of union­iz­ing to the homes of employ­ees. Ulti­mate­ly, the plant was able to add more than 150 work­ers to the orig­i­nal peti­tion and defeat the orga­niz­ing drive.

[Robb] han­dled most of the direct exam­i­na­tions, and his wit­ness­es were well-schooled in advance — he’d ask one ques­tion and they’d go on for­ev­er,” Fer­nan­des told Bloomberg BNA. I was at a dis­ad­van­tage, not being an attor­ney, but [the legal fees] would’ve been over­whelm­ing for our local to pay … we cer­tain­ly viewed it as union bust­ing — it was a very long case.”

Robb also has pre­vi­ous con­nec­tions to the NLRB. He worked as an NLRB field attor­ney in Bal­ti­more dur­ing the late 1970s. He returned to the agency in 1982 as a staff lawyer and chief coun­sel for for­mer mem­ber Robert Hunter. As a Repub­li­can, Hunter was an impor­tant ally to then-Chair­man Don­ald Dot­son, a staunch­ly anti-union mem­ber. In 1985, Rep. Bar­ney Frank (D‑Mass.) told The Wash­ing­ton Post that Hunter had been the, most loy­al sup­port­er of Don­ald Dot­son in the trans­for­ma­tion of the NLRB into a fun­da­men­tal­ly anti-union entity.”

More recent­ly, Robb’s firm harsh­ly crit­i­cized the Oba­ma-era NLRB, as cap­tured in a slideshow com­piled by Robb and Downs Rach­lin attor­ney Tim­o­thy Copeland Jr. The pre­sen­ta­tion took aim at some of the pro-labor posi­tions made by the NLRB under the pre­vi­ous admin­is­tra­tion. The [Demo­c­ra­t­ic] NLRB major­i­ty con­tin­ues to nar­row­ly define NLRB super­vi­so­ry sta­tus, some­times defy­ing all com­mon sense,” one slide reads. New Repub­li­can mem­bers are like­ly to agree that the Oba­ma board went too far,” the slideshow explained.

One of the deci­sions that Robb objects to is a 2014 rule that cuts back the amount of time between the fil­ing of a union­iza­tion peti­tion and the union vote to 11 days. The GOP has been attempt­ing to extend the num­ber of days to at least 35. This move would give busi­ness­es more time to con­struct a plan to stomp out union activ­i­ty, like the afore­men­tioned Domin­ion Nuclear strategy.

The NLRB has made it clear that the intent of the new reg­u­la­tions is to run an elec­tion as quick­ly as pos­si­ble which, of course, will give the employ­er the short­est peri­od of time to respond to a union elec­tion peti­tion,” Robb and three oth­er Downs Rach­lin lawyers wrote in a 2015 advi­so­ry.

The Trump admin­is­tra­tion has already qui­et­ly laid the ground­work for the NLRB to emerge as a much more busi­ness-friend­ly enti­ty. This real­i­ty was under­scored in August, when Labor Sec­re­tary Alexan­der Acos­ta announced that Ronald Rea­gan would be induct­ed into the department’s hall of fame. Trump’s pre­vi­ous NLRB nom­i­nees all have con­nec­tions to union-bust­ing, and the expect­ed nom­i­na­tion of Robb would effec­tive­ly make the NLRB — respon­si­ble for enforc­ing labor law — an anti-labor agency.

Michael Arria is the U.S. cor­re­spon­dent for Mon­doweiss. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @michaelarria.
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