The stunning decision today by a federal court to invalidate President Obama’s appointments to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is being treated by the media primarily as a constitutional power struggle between the president, the Senate and the judiciary. But for labor unions—and the millions of workers they represent—the court ruling is just the latest evidence that the NLRB—a New Deal-era federal agency set up to handle all labor disputes—needs updating. It’s time for a new, more decentralized approach to protecting worker rights that supplements the current structure, which funnels all worker complaints through a single central agency in Washington D.C.
The current NLRB delivered a number of significant pro-worker decisions in 2012, all of which may now be in jeopardy. In a single year, workers gained greater protections in their use of social media; protections from employer-mandated dispute resolution programs; and greater protections for automatic dues deductions, among others. After years of pro-employer boards, many in labor saw the current incarnation, which has served since January 2012, as providing a necessary rebalance of power. However, the NLRB was only able to reach these pro-worker decisions because President Obama used his recess appointment powers to appoint progressive members.
Now, that act may be erased. On Friday, a three-judge panel of the Federal District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia unanimously held that President Obama violated the Constitution when he made three recess appointments to the NLRB last January. The court rested its analysis on the definition of the word “the,” stating, “Then, as now, the word ‘the’ was and is a definite article.” Therefore a recess appointment must take place during “the recess” rather than “a recess.” In this instance, the Senate was not in session, but was not strictly in “the recess,” as it was gaveled in and out every few days.
If this decision stands, the NLRB of the past year will have had only one properly appointed member, Chairman Mark Pearce. Hundreds of board decisions will be retroactively invalidated, and the board will be unable to function until at least two additional members are confirmed by the Senate. With the latest attempt at filibuster reform having failed, it is unlikely that the Republican minority in the Senate will allow new appointees to proceed quickly, if at all.
Since all labor disputes must proceed through the NLRB, this ruling could leave workers with no venue to protect their unionization and bargaining rights. As former Board Chair William Gould wrote in the New York Times in 2011, before Obama made the recess appointments, no quorum on the Board would mean that:
Workers illegally fired for union organizing won’t be reinstated with back pay. Employers will be able to get away with interfering with union elections. Perhaps most important, employers won’t have to recognize unions despite a majority vote by workers. Without the board to enforce labor law, most companies will not voluntarily deal with unions.”
It was this reality that led the sole Republican member on the then-three-person board to consider resigning in order to rob it of a quorum. (The GOP has long loathed the NLRB). Now, the D.C. Circuit Court has held that millions of workers will have their workplace rights suspended because of the definition of a definite article in the Constitution.
The Obama administration will certainly appeal the D.C. Circuit’s decision to the Supreme Court, but given the high court’s current composition, it is unlikely that the decision will be overruled. The four conservative Supreme Court Justices can usually be counted on to vote against workers’ rights, and Justice Kennedy will likely be persuaded by the D.C. Circuit’s constitutional exegesis and appeal to Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary.
Labor should take this opportunity to look beyond the NLRB as the sole source of workers’ labor rights. The court’s decision on Friday has made apparent that the board has become too weak to remain the only venue where workers can seek relief for labor rights violations.
It is time to broaden the rights of workers by making labor organizing a civil right, so when employers illegitimately fire or discriminate against workers for organizing a union, workers can appeal not only to the NLRB, but also to a federal court. Just like victims of gender or racial discrimination, workers who suffered discrimination on the basis of union activity would get their day in court. As we discuss in our recent book, this proposal has many discrete benefits under a fully functional board. But it becomes a dire necessity with the prospect of the NLRB remaining defunct for a long stretch of time.
Writing labor rights into our civil-rights legislation does not entail scrapping the NLRB, but rather giving workers the same choice they have with other forms of discrimination: to proceed through an agency or through the courts. The conferral of such a choice may actually strengthen the NLRB by removing some of the enormous political pressures that the noard currently faces as the sole arbiter of labor rights. An NLRB that doesn’t have to carry the weight of every labor rights fight could devote itself to pursuing egregious or particularly difficult cases. Conservatives would have less incentive to rob the NLRB of a quorum if workers could still proceed through the courts and receive potentially greater remedies.
It’s unlikely we’ll see compromise on this issue from an increasingly intransigent GOP that has proven happy to gum up the works of government. Republicans have no incentive to confirm Obama’s NLRB nominees when a non-functioning board will render moot many of the nation’s labor laws and dramatically shift power from workers to corporations, which has been a core GOP goal. Labor should continue to work to strengthen the NLRB, but should also think about moving beyond it. A year’s worth of pro-worker precedent has been erased in a single day; that should be a wake-up call.