Freeman Brown: No More Limbo for Workers’ Rights

Posted February 24, 2010 at 10:51am

The war on working people has a new battleground: the National Labor Relations Board. For a full year, hostile Senators have blocked or watered down nearly every key piece of legislation America’s workers need — from labor law and health care reform to creating good, green jobs and regulating the finance industry.

[IMGCAP(1)]The recent derailment of fully qualified nominations to the NLRB laid down the gauntlet, proving that big business special interests and their friends in Congress are against any attempt to level the playing field for the middle class.

Right before the recess, a whole slate of President Barack Obama’s appointees were confirmed by the Senate, with the exception of a package of three nominees to the NLRB, the agency tasked with protecting and promoting the rights of workers to form unions and collectively bargain.

Long overdue progress for workers came to a screeching halt because the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and their anti-worker allies in the Senate manufactured controversy around one of the NLRB nominees, Craig Becker. The highly respected labor law practitioner, professor and practicing attorney before the U.S. Supreme Court is a perfect fit for the job. So why was an all-out war waged against Becker? He’s too pro-union. Translation: He’ll actually uphold the law.

The truth is Becker’s opponents simply don’t believe workers should be able to combat exploitation on the job by forming a union. So why would they want to see the agency charged with protecting workers’ rights fully functioning?

With President Barack Obama’s nominees defeated, America’s workers continue to pay the cost. The board will continue to hobble along as it has for the past two years. Stuck with just two members, every critical case at the national level is frozen. The delays for some cases are beyond reasonable — two dozen cases have been pending for more than four years. Nor will the board review and reconsider the damaging legal precedents established by the Bush administration’s board. This means that millions of workers who saw their right to form a union revoked by the Bush board — like the nurses and professionals wrongly labeled as supervisors — must continue to work without job security and a voice to improve their working conditions.

Here’s the bottom line: We need a fully functioning NLRB. Every day without one leaves hard-working men and women vulnerable to unfair labor practices that strip them of their right to organize and bargain for a fair shot at the American Dream.

How can that happen? The president must flex his constitutional authority to appoint his NLRB nominees and give workers the protection they’ve gone so long without. Obama missed a great opportunity over this past recess to move on from this debate. A recess appointment would not be a radical use of executive power. In fact, he would just be following the precedent laid out by his predecessors. Every commander in chief dating back to Jimmy Carter has made recess appointments to the NLRB. Ronald Reagan made a whopping 243 recess appointments, George H.W. Bush made 77, Bill Clinton made 140 and George W. Bush made 171.

Obama shouldn’t make the same mistake again. Instead of starting from scratch and giving workers’ rights opponents another opportunity to block exemplary candidates, he must stop the cycle of inaction.

Indeed, America’s working families shouldn’t have to wait any longer. Their rights took a beating under the Bush administration, and with Obama, saw an opportunity for hope and change. In today’s climate of economic insecurity, now is not the time for the labor board to be handicapped. Our nation’s workers have given more than their fair share of sacrifices and patience. They are playing by the rules, want to rebuild the economy and are willing to work harder. They deserve better than Washington gridlock and ideological impasses.

The obstructionist minority in the Senate has made it clear that it does not want the labor board to function in its role as a protector of workers. It’s now up to the Obama administration to stand up to them — and get this fundamental agency back to work.

Kimberly Freeman Brown is the executive director of the labor policy and advocacy organization American Rights at Work.