Unions say Senate must act to fill court vacancies

WASHINGTON – Union leaders are strongly urging the U.S. Senate to quickly approve President Obama’s three nominees for vacant seats on the U.S. court that decides most labor-management disputes.

And if it doesn’t OK them, that failure may become the trigger that forces senators to change their rules right now and curb or halt filibusters – the Republican maneuvers that doomed pro-worker initiatives such as labor law reform and equal pay laws, as well as preventing a functioning National Labor Relations Board.

On June 4, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said the Senate should “move expeditiously” to approve Obama’s nominees for the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia: Georgetown University law professor Nina Pillard, U.S. District Judge Robert Wilkins, and Patricia Millett, an attorney with the high-powered lobbying firm of Akin, Gump. Both women are former Justice Department lawyers and officials.

Their bios show none have labor movement ties. Pillard successfully defended the Family and Medical Leave Act in 2003 against a right-wing court challenge and won the later sex discrimination case opening Virginia Military Institute to women.

“I didn’t just wake up one day and say, ‘Let’s add three seats to the court of appeals,'” Obama told a White House news conference on June 4, introducing the three – and thus emphasizing the D.C. appeals court’s importance. “What I am doing today is my job. I need the Senate to do its job.”

But if the Senate doesn’t do its job, thanks to GOP obstructionism, labor leaders are lobbying Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to change the filibuster rules, to eliminate or cut down on the talkathons’ power to kill nominations, right now.

“Larry is pushing this effort to have the Senate majority make this happen,” Communications Workers communications director Candice Johnson says of her boss, union President Larry Cohen. CWA launched a Democracy Initiative, including filibuster reform or abolition, last year, and more than 50 other organizations have signed on,

If Reid doesn’t override the Republicans and get votes now on President Obama’s National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) nominees, she adds, Cohen and the others want Reid to immediately change the Senate rules and force the votes.

Steelworkers President Leo Gerard openly agrees. “Use The Nuke, Harry, Use The Nuke,” he urges on USW’s blog. The “Nuke” is the “nuclear option” of changing the Senate rules, by a simple majority vote, in the middle of the session, to curb filibusters.

The Republicans “manipulate Senate recesses to unprecedented levels, to stop presidential nominations to the NLRB and other posts, Gerard explains. “They’ve delayed and appealed decisions. Government disgusts Republicans, so obstructing it makes sense to them. They’re equally repulsed by unions. Reid can hobble this Right-Wing campaign against working people by deploying the nuclear option. He’s got nothing to lose and workers have everything to gain.”

Trumka cites the judges in opposing the filibuster. He previously said the Senate should not filibuster the NLRB nominees, either.

“The D.C. Circuit is extremely important to working families,” his statement on the judges explains. “The court hears more significant labor-related cases – workplace safety cases, wage and hour cases, unfair labor practice cases, and other regulatory cases — than any other circuit court of appeals.

“Sometimes its rulings have sweeping and dramatic impact, as we have seen recently with the court’s decision on Obama’s recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board, a decision that calls into question decades of tradition and hundreds of appointments by presidents of both parties, and that has created chaos and hardship for working people in the enforcement of their rights under our labor law.”

Gerard admitted Senate Democrats filibustered some judicial nominees by GOP President George W. Bush. And Democrats “engaged in ‘pro forma’ recesses,” he added. They convened the Senate for a minute or so every three days to prevent a formal recess that Bush could use to justify his own “recess appointments.”

“But it was nowhere near the level the GOP is doing it now,” Gerard continued. “During the Bush administration, the GOP threatened to change the rules to prevent filibustering of nominees. That’s the nuclear option. If Republicans went nuclear, Democrats said they’d scuttle Bush’s entire legislative agenda. So Republicans didn’t.

“Now, however, Democrats have nothing to lose if they go nuclear. There’s no threat in Republicans saying they’ll stymie Obama’s legislative agenda. They already do that. They say no to everything — even measures essential to prevent financial disaster,” he said. The Employee Free Choice Act was among the GOP ‘no’ victims.

“Reid stepped back from the nuclear option earlier this year. Now, however, is the time to use the nuke. All American workers need that protection,” Gerard ended.

Photo: Unions want to make sure the Circuit Court of Appeals is operating, as the court deals with worker rights. AP


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.