Welcome back NLRB – America’s workers missed you
Before I get into just what the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) means – and has meant – to the working men and women of this nation, I want to start by citing a couple of pieces of data because I think they tell a real story.
Right now, 68% of Americans approve of labor unions. That number is at a more than 50-year high. This means America’s workers are hurting, and they know they need a voice in the workplace. Secondly, according to a recent AFL-CIO analysis, the average CEO of an S&P 500 company made 299 times what the median worker made in 2020. In other sectors – like retail, where Amazon lives – this number is much higher.
The NLRB is a federal board first appointed by the president 85 years ago. In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan shifted its priorities from workers’ rights to corporate profits. Under Reagan, the board reversed previous NLRB policy in more than two dozen major cases, almost totally changing the direction the board had followed since its inception under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Instead of taking up worker complaints, Reagan’s NLRB backlog of unresolved complaints against employers rose to at least three times what it was before he took office. Delays of up to two years became common. Even more stymieing to the labor force, his board took just as long to act on worker petitions to hold union representation elections and to certify fair union wins.
Fast forward to President Donald Trump’s first year in office, where we find his labor secretary, Alexander Acosta, cheerfully announcing that Reagan, who did so very much to weaken organized labor, was voted into the Labor Hall of Fame. There are truly no words adequate to express labor’s outrage at this.
Sadly though, Trump was just warming up. His NLRB went the furthest in systematically rolling back the right to form a union and engage in collective bargaining, efforts that struck a further blow to America’s wage inequality and directly harmed workers, their communities and the economy.
President Joe Biden quickly cleaned house at the NLRB and Democrats are now in control of the federal labor board for the first time in four years, and pursuing aggressive measures to regain for unions the ground lost during the Trump administration and even looking to go beyond the limits pushed by President Barack Obama.
And all indications show that Jennifer Abruzzo, the president’s new general counsel, is helping to lead the charge and losing no time. She has put together a list of Trump-era decisions for reconsideration and is pushing to get important cases before the board quickly. She also indicated that she is in favor of the PRO Act, the most sweeping piece of labor legislation in 50 years, and reestablishing the long practice of ordering companies to bargain with unions based on signed cards of support, rather than secret ballot elections. This is a game changer for union organizing and for workers who want a voice in their workplace.
We’ve already seen this new NLRB in action. During the month of August alone, the board ruled that Amazon illegally discouraged union organization in Bessemer, Ala., which may lead to a new vote; heard a case against Google; and filed a complaint against Home Depot for penalizing an employee for wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt. These are just a few examples of Biden’s new NLRB.
This new NLRB is an agency returning to its original purpose in a time when America’s workers need it most. We, as a nation and as a labor movement, are building back!
Ray Curry is president of United Auto Workers of America and a longtime grassroots activist.