Senate confirms all five Obama picks for NLRB

WASHINGTON – Bringing to an end years of right-wing obstruction and delay, the Senate yesterday filled all five National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) seats with permanent members, ensuring the board can go ahead and govern worker-management relations for 85 million U.S. workers, most of them in the private sector.

As a result of the Senate confirmations, following a deal two weeks ago to break Republican obstruction, the NLRB has what it hasn’t had in ten years: five full-term members.

Democratic NLRB Chairman Mark Gaston Pearce won a new term by a 59-38 margin, with seven Republicans joining both the Senate independents and 50 Democrats to approve his nomination.

Two strongly pro-labor Democratic nominees, Nancy Schiffer, an AFL-CIO counsel, and Kent Hirozawa, Pearce’s top aide, won by 54-44 margins, with only Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, joining both independents and 51 Democrats. Murkowski also voted for Pearce. Her vote seems to be her continuing pay-back to a Republican Party that unsuccessfully backed her tea party opponent in the Alaska GOP’s primary election last time around.

The two Republicans nominated by the president, management side labor lawyers Phillip Miscimarra and Harry Johnson, won by unanimous voice votes.

Angry over GOP obstructionism and under pressure from the labor movement and its allies, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on July 11 filed a motion in the Senate to invoke cloture (in this case end debate) on the NLRB nominations Republicans were stalling and on several other stalled Obama cabinet appointments including Richard Cordroy (Consumer Financial Protection Bureau); Gina McCarthy (Environmental Protection Agency); and Thomas Perez (Department of Labor).

In addition, Reid threatened to exercise the “nuclear option,” by which all nominees would be voted on in a single action. To speed things up Reid also vowed to change Senate filibuster rules, so that a simple majority of 51 votes, rather than a three-fifths majority, would be needed to invoke cloture.

“We’re not interested in cutting a deal to pass one or two or three nominees,” said Reid to the press at the time. “The president deserves to have his team in place, and there are no more major objections to the qualifications of any of these nominees. All we need is six GOP votes to invoke cloture. Let them vote against these people.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., flipped out, saying Reid would have “Presided over the end of the Senate” emblazoned on his tombstone if he went through with his threat. McConnell ended up yielding on the obstruction by agreeing to a deal, however, whereby Reid would call off the filibuster rule change in exchange for an end to GOP obstruction on the president’s nominees.

Communications Workers President Larry Cohen, who led the grassroots fight to break the GOP filibusters that had halted prior Obama administration NLRB nominees – and that threatened Pearce, Schiffer and Hirozawa — hailed the votes, but said the fight for democracy in the Senate and in the U.S. isn’t over.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka predicted the five will “fairly and impartially oversee the workplace rights of all.” Change To Win Chair Joe Hansen had no immediate comment. Both had urged senators to end the deadlock.

“Today’s action is long overdue,” Cohen said. “President Obama began his second term without a Democratic majority on the NLRB, and for workers that has meant continued delay in workplace justice, whether to enforce their bargaining rights or protect them from an employer’s illegal action. Today’s Senate action is a step toward justice for 80 million private sector workers.”

Senate Democrats overcame the filibusters and obstruction of Obama’s nominees, not just for the NLRB, but for other posts, too, he added. But the votes “mean this Labor Day, 80 million workers will continue to have the protections of federal law and that the only agency that can enforce workplace rights will be fully functional.”

The CWA campaign for a full NLRB is actually only part of the larger Democracy Initiative” Cohen’s union has joined. That initiative includes the entire AFL-CIO and more than 60 other organizations and intends, Cohen said, to continue to fight Republican obstructionism, right-wing filibusters of progressive legislation, corporate finance abuse, excessive corporate spending on election campaigns and attempts to limit the right to vote.

“We are a nation with the lowest voter registration level at just 70 percent, the lowest collective bargaining rate at just 11 percent and the highest rate of corporate spending in our election process. Members of the Democracy Initiative know that Americans are up against a right wing agenda of no voting rights, no bargaining rights and no limits on corporate spending in our democratic process. That’s the fight we’re in to win,” said Cohen.

Pearce thanked the Senate and also praised the two departing NLRB members, Richard Griffin and Sharon Block, whom Schiffer and Hirozawa replace. Griffin, a former general counsel for the Operating Engineers, and Block were Obama’s “recess appointees.” The president named them during a Senate recess two and a half years ago after filibusters killed his nominees for permanent NLRB seats.

Trumka also regretted that Griffin and Block could not hold their seats, but predicted Schiffer and Hirozawa would be outstanding replacements. The recess appointments set off a firestorm of GOP reaction, bolstered by federal appeals court rulings (by GOP-named judges) saying the recess appointees were illegal and thus the board had illegally ruled on more than 1,000 cases they sat on.

All may not be lost for Griffin, one of the president’s pro-labor appointees, however.

Sources in the AFL-CIO with knowledge of the situation have told the Peoples World and other news outlets that Reid has actually secured the job of NLRB general counsel for Griffin. That position, which requires Senate confirmation, has been occupied on a provisional basis, without formal approval, for the last four years by Acting General Counsel Lafe Solomon.

That part of the deal has right-wingers busting a gut. Patrick Semmens, a spokesman for the rabidly anti-union National Right to Work Legal Defense Fund told the press recently that the general counsel is actually a “sixth man” on the board who “decides what gets prosecuted and what doesn’t get prosecuted” when it comes to labor law violations.

The right to work for less outfits still havn’t forgiven the current acting counsel, Solomon, for what he did in that post and fear that, from their perspective, Griffin may do “worse.” Solomon filed a complaint against Boeing a few years ago to prevent the company from opening a second, nonunion plant in South Carolina to assemble its 787 “Dreamliner” commercial jets. In that decision the NLRB was saying it filed the complaint because the move to South Carolina was retaliation by Boeing for workers striking in Washington state. Right wingers felt the NLRB was going totally out of bounds there, claiming that the board had no right to rule the way it did because no one in Washington state had actually been laid off. The NLRB was saying, of course, that there were many ways in addition to lay-offs that a company could retaliate against workers who had exercised their rights on the job.

Right-wingers are equally unhappy about Nancy Jean Schiffer ending up on the board. Schiffer, who previously served with the NLRB’s Detroit regional office, was a long-time member of the United Auto Workers legal department before becoming general counsel for the AFL-CIO.

Right-wingers see her as an outspoken advocate of workers rights and particularly hate her strong advocacy over the years for the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). The EFCA would require employers to recognize a union as soon as a majority of workers sign cards indicating their desire to join one, avoiding drawn out election campaigns employers often use to harass and even fire union supporters.

Schiffer gave dramatic testimony on behalf of the EFCA before the Congress back in 2004 when she said: “The Employee Free Choice Act is needed to address a severe violation of human rights: the pervasive denial of America’s workers’ freedom to form unions and bargain collectively.”

“When Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act, a promise was made to the American people.  In the words of FDR, the board is charged with enforcing rights that reflect both ‘common justice and economic advance,'” Pearce said after the Senate confirmation votes.

“The National Labor Relations Act guarantees the right of private sector workers to organize and bargain collectively with their employers and to participate in concerted activities to improve their pay and working conditions.  Employers and employees alike are guaranteed protection from unfair labor practices.  Employers and employees alike have an impartial forum for the resolution of disputes,” he added. Obama and the Senate “have given us the opportunity to serve as members of a bipartisan board, committed to playing a vital role in defining the rules of the road for employers and employees,” Pearce stated.

The Senate’s action is “good news for all workers seeking to exercise the rights they are guaranteed by law,” said Trumka. “Those essential rights include the ability to bargain together for fair wages and living standards, and a workplace safe from abuse, harassment, and intimidation. Obstructionism by extremist Republicans delayed…a full board and caused unnecessary anxiety and pain for working families.

Photo: CWA Facebook page


John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward, as a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee, and as an activist in the union's campaign to win public support for Wal-Mart workers. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.

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.