Tough Fights in Senate, as GOP Blocks Obama Labor Appointees (Updated)

David Moberg

U.S. Senator Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.).
Workers and union officials may have reason to cheer — and worry — as the Senate deliberates today.

On the positive side, the Senate is likely to approve M. Patricia Smith as solicitor for the Labor Department, nine long months after she was nominated for the job (see update on Senate approval of Smith below). Smith has been commissioner of the New York Department of Labor — the best state department in the nation, according to Interfaith Workers Justice public policy director Ted Smukler. She drew the ire of Republicans in Congress for her Wage Watch campaign in New York City. That was a pilot project involving unions like RWDSU (retail workers) and community groups in identifying employers who were cheating workers out of the minimum wage, overtime and other guarantees.

Top Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee Republican Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo. put a hold on her nomination, but on Monday Democrats mustered a 60-32 vote to close debate on her appointment, setting the stage for today’s possible approval.

But prospects grow slightly dimmer today for the equally long-delayed nomination of SEIU and AFL-CIO attorney Craig Becker for a seat on the National Labor Relations Board.

After Sen. John McCain put a hold on his nomination last October, Republicans forced the first committee hearing on an NLRB nominee since 1980. Then only three of ten Republicans on the committee even showed up on Tuesday (with Orrin Hatch not bothering to stay long enough to ask a question or hear testimony). 

Becker, a brilliant and experienced practicing attorney and labor law professor, had already answered 280 written questions submitted by members – with not a single question from McCain, as Sen. Al Franken humorously noted. 

In the hearing, Becker indicated he would not try to change NLRB rules in ways he had suggested in his academic writings were both desirable and possible, such as restricting employers’ rights to influence workers’ decisions about forming a union. His testimony left the impression that he would be pragmatic and restrained, but that will probably win few Republican votes.

The HELP committee is likely to send Becker’s nomination to the full Senate today, but newly elected Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown has asked to take his seat today, a week earlier than previously expected – and stopping Becker appears part of his motivation.

Seating Brown would deprive the Democrats of the 60 votes needed to close debate, threatening Becker’s appointment. But Enzi and Sen. Lisa Murkowski R-AK) previously voted in committee for Becker and conceivably could vote for cloture to set up approval of Becker’s nomination. Democrats are likely to put up Obama’s two other NLRB nominees — labor-side lawyer, Mark G. Pearce, and Enzi’s HELP staffer, Brian Hayes — as part of a package with Becker.

But hope for any consistency, rationality, fairness or even willingness to strike a deal among Republican Senators seems misplaced — except for the desire to block Obama on all fronts, especially when corporate interests are calling the shots against workers.

As Mike Hall at AFL-CIO NOW reports, Enzi and Murkowski are backing away from their previous vote for Becker:

In addition, two Republican senators, Mike Enzi (Wyo.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who earlier had voted for Becker at the committee level last year, somewhere along the line had an epiphany that Becker was the devil incarnate with a union card and now say they will vote against Becker.

The NLRB has five seats, and typically the Democrats name three labor-friendly nominees when they have the White House, and Republicans name three pro-management appointees when they have power. But for a couple of years the NLRB — a slow-acting agency under good conditions — has limped along with one pro-labor and one pro-management board member, who avoided settling cases that might set policy but otherwise tried to manage the backlog of hundreds of cases. 

But there have been court challenges to the legitimacy of around 75 of those two-person judgments, and the Supreme Court will hear arguments this spring on one case.

Republicans and businesses are generally happy with a slow, backlogged, ineffective NLRB, but Obama seems to be trying to restore the regulatory functions of government. But Republicans are delaying appointments of all types with a vengeance, especially when workers’ rights are involved.

Republican Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.) put a hold on former police detective and FBI special agent Erroll aSouthers’ nomination as Transportation Security Administration chief because he saw Southers as sympathetic to the rights of TSA employees to unionize. (They are now trying to do.) On Jan. 20, he withdrew his nomination, partly because of an old case of improprieties on his job, which provided a cover for the real anti-labor agenda so obvious in the cases of Smith and Becker. 

UPDATE: The Senate confirmed Smith Thursday afternoon by a 60-37 vote.

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David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

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