President Joe Biden swiftly began to make good on his promises to American workers on Wednesday by demanding the resignation of the fiercely anti-union attorney for the National Labor Relations Board, then firing him when he refused.
General Counsel Peter Robb, installed by the Trump administration in 2017, instigated many of the Republican-led NLRB’s attacks on workers’ rights, safety and economic security.
In a letter sent minutes after he took the oath of office, Biden gave Robb until 5 p.m. to resign. He refused, citing the 10 months left in his four-year term.
By Wednesday evening, the NLRB’s online organizational chart listed his position as “vacant,” igniting a debate among legal experts, legislators and others over Biden’s power to terminate Robb early and the precedent it could set.
For union leaders, it’s simple.
“Peter Robb has been a union-buster for 40 years, since he helped President Reagan fire the nation’s unionized air traffic controllers in 1981,” International President Lonnie R. Stephenson said. “In private practice, he viciously derailed organizing drives, including one of ours.”
He said Robb never had any business holding power inside an agency created to protect workers, including —as specified in the first article of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act —their right to organize and bargain collectively.
“He thumbed his nose at the NLRB’s mission every day he worked there,” Stephenson said. “He was fired for cause.”
Robb wasn’t the only one. Biden also fired Kathleen Kraninger, who undermined the mission of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau since taking over as director in 2018, a term intended to run through 2023. Willfully failing consumers, her actions instead protected the practices of predatory lenders and gave debt collectors limitless power to harass desperate people online.
During Robb’s tenure at the NLRB, the board widely expanded employers’ power, allowing them to search workers’ cars and personal items, to eject union organizers from public spaces, to more easily withdraw union recognition, to discriminate against union members in the workplace, thwart protests, and disregard the rights of workers at subcontractors and franchises, among other harm done.
But overnight, the NLRB was under new management. On the heels of Robb’s ouster, Biden appointed pro-worker member Lauren McFerran as chair. She replaces union-avoidance lawyer John Ring at the helm of the five-seat board, with the 3-2 split favoring the president’s party.
One or both of the seats that belonged to Democrats during the Trump administration has been vacant for more than two years, due to Senate Republicans’ refusal to act on nominations.
As a result, McFerran as been the board’s lone voice for workers and unions since August 2018. While unable to sway her counterparts, she’s compiled a record of vigorous dissents that methodically crack the shaky foundations of the majority’s 3-1 rulings.
But after her first term expired in December 2019, workers were left with no voice at all for seven months. Steered by Robb, the all-Republican board consistently issued 3-0 rulings against workers.
Former Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell finally relented last July, allowing McFerran to be reconfirmed.
Biden is expected to announce nominees soon for the party’s two remaining NLBR seats in the coming weeks. Unions will push the Senate’s new Democratic majority to act quickly to confirm a full 3-2, worker-friendly board.
“President Biden didn’t waste a minute his first day doing right by workers and unions, as he’s done for a half century as a U.S. senator and vice president,” Stephenson said. “The future for American workers and their families is brighter than it’s been for a long time as long as lawmakers in the narrow majorities we’ve elected to the House and Senate have his back. It’s up to us to make sure they do.”