Senate rules fight today a big deal for a Battle Creek woman

Washington stories about “inside baseball,” the machinations of the Capitol’s ruling class – especially in Congress – usually cause readers’ eyes to glaze over, for good reason. But there are connections between those insider maneuvers and what happens to U.S. workers, outside the Beltway.

Kathleen Von Eitzen can tell you all about it.

Video: AFL-CIO: Kathleen Von Eitzen – Organizing At Panera (article continues after video)

Von Eitzen is a middle-aged baker, who toils in the night shift at Panera Bread, a bakery chain in Battle Creek, Mich., her hometown, and the surrounding area. She earns $21,000 a year for hard work that took four months of training. Most of her colleagues earn that amount, or less. On that pay, she can’t afford health care coverage for her husband, who is disabled from heart attacks, and for herself.

The conditions are hard, the ovens are hot, the work is demanding and the managers recently jacked up the workload, she says. That hike came after the bakers, fed up with management indifference and worse, voted 11-7 in March 2012 to join the Bakery, Confectionery and Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers (BCTGM).

The group stuck together, she said in an interview, despite 5-hour-long anti-union meetings – which workers legally had to attend – and despite, among other things, the firing of one colleague for missing days at work for treatment of stomach cancer. The colleague had told her supervisors she needed time off for the treatment, and got their permission. That changed during the organizing drive. It scared people, too, she says.

So what does all this have to do with D.C. “inside baseball?” The answer is that Von Eitzen and her fellow bakers don’t have their union yet.

And “inside baseball” is the reason why.

Panera appealed the election to the National Labor Relations Board, and lost there. Then it appealed the board’s ruling to the federal courts, which put the case on hold. It’s on hold because of an “inside baseball” issue: Is the NLRB legal or not?

Panera, like dozens of other firms, argues the board is illegally constituted and can’t rule on the Panera case – or anything else. It’s illegal, the businesses say, because President Barack Obama illegally appointed two NLRB members in January 2012. Without the two, the NLRB doesn’t have enough members to function.

A panel of three GOP-nominated federal appeals court judges agreed this past January with the businesses the NLRB is illegal, and so are its decisions since January 2012. So all other NLRB cases before the courts, including Panera Bread, are on hold.

And why is the NLRB “illegal”? We’re back to “inside baseball,” again.

The NLRB has only one regular member and the two supposedly illegal “recess” appointees, whom Obama named when the Senate wasn’t in session to vote on his regular nominations. And when he nominated regular NLRB members, the Senate Republican minority filibustered them to death. Another “inside baseball” instance.

Obama has nominated five people, three Democrats and two Republicans, to fill the NLRB’s five seats. The GOP plans to filibuster again. The terms of all three current members, including the only regular – NLRB Chairman Mark Gaston Pearce – expire in August. If the filibuster succeeds, they’re out. The board would be paralyzed.

No NLRB equals no rulings equals no justice for Von Eitzen and the other Panera bakers – and for workers in at least 919 other cases the NLRB has decided on since January 2012. All because of “inside baseball” in Washington, D.C.

So unions, led by the Communications Workers, have had an ongoing campaign to break the deadlock and force the Senate to actually vote on the NLRB nominees this week. If the filibuster blocks them, Majority Leader Harry Reid plans to change the filibuster rule to eliminate the Republicans’ roadblock. But he needs 51 senators for that rules change. More “inside baseball.”

That’s where outside pressure can affect the “inside baseball.” Not all of the Senate’s 52 Democrats and two Democratic-leaning independents are on board with changing the filibuster rules. (Unions aren’t even approaching the 46 Republicans.)

Some Democrats fear what would happen if their party slides back into the minority after the 2014 off-year election, when more Democratic than GOP seats will be up. They fear they might need to filibuster to halt Right Wing schemes and appointees.

Faced with that Democratic doubt, CWA and its allies in a grand coalition want constituents to lobby their senators, especially wavering Democrats such as Michigan’s Carl Levin and Montana’s Max Baucus, to vote to confirm all five NLRB nominees – and to vote to change the rules if the filibuster override fails.

“I need an NLRB to say that we won,” Von Eitzen says. “I need to have five people there” so the board can ratify BCTGM’s victory. Otherwise, cases of Von Eitzen, her co-workers and thousands of others nationwide “just go floating off,” she adds.

All because of “inside baseball.”

Photo: Screen shot from the video.



Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.