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October 2020

The Front Line: Politics & Jobs
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NLRB Deals New Blow to Workers' Safety, Security in COVID-19 Era

Imperiling workers and the public, the National Labor Relations Board dismissed cases in recent months against employers charged with firing COVID-19 whistleblowers and refusing to bargain over safety and health issues.

The decisions, laid out in five memos to NLRB regional directors, are among the latest assaults on workers' rights and safety by the Republican-controlled board and its union-busting general counsel, Peter Robb.

There's "only one outcome in their decision making," former NLRB chairwoman Wilma Liebman told Bloomberg Law. "All decisions favor employers, a result inconceivable under a statute designed to protect workers."

Despite the virus' rapid spread, the NLRB is letting employers drag their feet. It dismissed charges the Teamsters brought against a concrete company, which refused to reopen bargaining to discuss paid sick leave and hazard pay. The memo said management is only obligated to do so 60 days after a formal request from the union.

At least two of the cases involved workers who were fired after speaking up about dangerous conditions, including a nurse at a New York nursing home where employees were required to share what were intended to be sanitary isolation gowns.

"The board has decided that an individual speaking out about a company's COVID safety procedure is not protected speech," Bloomberg Law wrote.

The board also dropped a case against a Texas drywall company that fired a worker who raised concerns about a lack of hand-washing supplies. The NLRB accepted it as protected speech but rejected the claim of retaliation.

The facts of each case may differ, but the message is clear, International President Lonnie R. Stephenson said. "Not even the gravity of a deadly pandemic is slowing down the NLRB's attacks on our fundamental rights as workers, one of which is returning home safe and well every day.

"Let me be blunt: The only way that changes is by electing a pro-worker, pro-union president who appoints board members who will stand up for us," he said. "We know Joe Biden will do that because he's had our backs for 50 years."

The five-seat NLRB is controlled by the party in power in the White House. Until recently, the board was composed solely of three Republicans who raced to issue unanimous 3-0 rulings against workers.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had refused to fill either of the two vacant seats belonging to Democrats. Finally, in late July, he allowed the reconfirmation of Lauren McFerran, whose previous five-year term ended last December. Once again, she is the NLRB's lone worker-friendly voice.

The current board majority is "apparently taking advantage of the pandemic to excuse employers from obligations they would otherwise have under the statute," Liebman said in the Bloomberg article.

In the process, she said, they are easing or discarding "norms that provide some measure of integrity to agency procedure."

Liebman, who served on the board from 1997 to 2011 and was appointed chairwoman by President Obama in 2009, said the presidential election is also a factor, spurring the board to "rush to check off all the items on management law firms' wish lists."

The pace picked up sharply about a year ago, including rulings that allow employers to kick organizers out of public spaces and forbid union apparel at work; shield corporations when franchises mistreat employees; ban certain informational pickets; and much more, including a June decision that expands the right of employers to search workers' cars and other belongings on company property.

In "matters of substance, procedure and integrity, they are continuing in a direction long in the making, but seemingly at an accelerating pace," Liebman said.


The GOP-controlled National Labor Relations Board continues to trample workers' rights and their safety on the job despite the grave risks of COVID-19. Recently reconfirmed member Lauren McFerran, inset, is the board's only pro-worker voice.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Geraldshields11

Study: Unions Increase Political Power for
Poor and Working People

It's generally assumed that politicians are more responsive to their well-heeled and wealthy constituents than they are to the poor and working class. But a new study shows how unions can shift that balance.

"This research shows yet again that unions aren't just good for their members, they're good for all working people," said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson.

Researchers Michael Becher at the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse and Daniel Stegmueller at Duke University looked at large data sets from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study and U.S. Census' American Community Survey. The CCES is a survey of more than 50,000 people administered by YouGov, a global public opinion and data company.

Becher and Stegmueller asked respondents if they supported legislation that resulted in U.S. House votes on the Dodd-Frank Act, the Affordable Care Act (and attempts to repeal it), the minimum wage increase, the ratification of the Central America Free Trade Agreement and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

Taking that data and looking at income levels and union membership in each congressional district, they concluded that lawmakers do indeed tend to be more responsive to their high-income constituents.

While the preferences of those in the upper income distribution have a probability of 13.5 percentage points of being reflected in Congressional votes, it's only 1.6 points for those in the bottom third of the income ladder. In other words, the more money someone has, the more likely they are to get what they want from their congressional representative.

But a strong union presence changes that.

"We estimate that an … increase in unionization increases responsiveness towards the poor by about 6-8 percentage points (and it somewhat reduces responsiveness to higher incomes)," the authors wrote. "As a result, in districts with relatively strong unions legislators are about equally responsive to rich and poor Americans.

"It may appear that unequal democracy is an inherent feature of capitalism. In contrast, we argue that organized labor can be an effective source of political equality in the United States even in times of high economic inequality."

Becher and Stegmueller also noted that it isn't just the shared interests of the working class that matters. It's the organizing.

"What matters is that stronger local unions in a congressional district pose a credible mobilization threat," they wrote.

As the Economic Policy Institute noted in a report on how unions help working people, the ability to join together provides for working people what trade and business organizations do for owners and CEOs. They give working families a collective voice.

"What our members and other working people do matters just as much as that of managers and owners," Stephenson said. "And unions provide a place for these voices to be heard, whether it's in our communities or in the halls of Congress."

Conversely, the decline of unions impacts more than just those covered by a collective bargaining agreement. This was noted in the study as well.

"The sizable impact of strong unions might also explain why unions remain under sustained attack by conservative groups," the authors wrote.

The deterioration of unions has coincided with the erosion of a number of workers' issues from overtime pay and workers compensation programs to the decline of the real value of the minimum wage, which is lower today than it was in 1968, according to EPI.

Attacks on unions have only worsened under the Trump administration. Most recently, the NLRB has dismissed cases against employers charged with firing COVID-19 whistleblowers and refusing to bargain over safety and health issues. In June, it issued a decision that expands the right of employers to search workers' cars and other belongings on company property. It has also allowed employers to kick organizers out of public spaces, shielded corporations when franchises mistreat employees, banned certain informational pickets and forbid union apparel at work, among a host of other issues.


Rep. Donald Norcross is the only active IBEW member in Congress, representing New Jersey's union-dense 1st District.