New NLRB chief sees a future where workers rights top the agenda

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For years, as a member of the National labor Relations Board, she spoke out against the Bush-appointed majority on that board. For years she felt frustration over how, in ruling after ruling, that board interpreted key parts of the National Labor relations Act in ways that hurt workers. Now, after the inauguration of President Barack Obama, she has become the chairman of that board.

Wilma Liebman says she looks forward to a future where workers’ rights, and how to insure them, are once again at the top of the national agenda.

The NLRB was created under the National labor Relations Act, itself a key part of FDR’s New Deal. The original purpose of the act was to help build the foundations for mass prosperity by reigning in the out-of-control business practices that had caused the Great Depression in the first place. Other legal building blocks in the New Deal were the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established minimum wage and overtime pay guidelines, and the Public Utility Holding Company Act, which regulated public utilities. The Republicans eventually saw to it that the public utility controls were eliminated.

Unlike those other New Deal laws, however the National Labor Relations Act had, and still has, only small penalties for labor law breakers. The Employee Free Choice Act would sharply increase those fines and it would give the NLRB more power to get court orders against labor law breakers.

Employee free choice would allow workers to choose, either by majority sign-up or by election, whether they want union representation. Under the National Labor relations Act, the company makes that choice. Many companies that choose an election, which is run by Liebmans’s board, break the law during the campaign by harassing and even firing union supporters and by forcing workers to attend mandatory anti-union propaganda sessions

Liebman told Press Associates, the union news service, last week that, although she cannot take an official position for or against the Employee Free Choice Act, the National Labor relations Act is outmoded because “it is 70 years old and was written for an industrial era when workers toiled on the assembly line and often stayed with the same firm for years – not like now. I would hop any changes made take into account changes in the work[place and in the economy. The point of my dissents” to GOP-majority NLRB rulings in the past few years is that the board ignored realities.”

Antiquated labor law in only one part of the difficult job Liebman faces. She, a Democrat, is one of only two members of what is supposed to be a fiver-member board. The other is Republican Peter Schaumber. Although Obama designated her to chair the board, he has not yet filled the remaining seats. He must, by law, appoint a bipartisan board, with the majority party getting three seats and the minority party two.

Liebman hopes and is actually confident, she says, that labor law and workers’ rights will be back in the public eye. She says the coming fight over the Employee Free Choice Act is only part of the reason. She says the state of the economy and the realization in Washington that we need regulation of business to curb its excesses are also contributing factors.

“The stars are quite aligned, especially with a Democratic president and Congress and the economic crisis. We’re back in the mode of considering government regulation – and the role of unions and labor law in building of the middle class.”

There has been a severe decline in the board’s union representation caseload – a 47 percent drop – since Liebman became a member in 1997.

Liebman says this is, in part, due to the fact that unions have been frustrated by the NLRB election process, especially the rampant labor-law-breaking it allows. It is why, she says, they have turned to signing majority signup agreements with companies. “They’re skeptical about board outcomes, delays and remedies.”

Liebman is alerting everyone to what she sees as a serious shortcoming in the way the board operates. Her board, like a court, can rule only on what comes before it. Other federal regulatory agencies, not similarly restricted, can initiate investigations.

This, of course, means that some of the most anti-worker rulings of the old Bush majority board will stand until a case comes to the board challenging them. Those include a ruling that nurses, and potentially millions of other workers, are supervisors – a decision that Liebman opposed.

John Wojcik (jwojcik @pww.org) is labor editor at People's Weekly World. PAI contributed to this story.