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March 2021

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Biden Fires Union-Busting NLRB Lawyer,
Names Pro-Worker Champion as Chair

President Joe Biden began to make good on his promises to America's workers immediately upon taking office Jan. 20, 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 moments after the swearing-in at noon, Biden gave Robb until 5 p.m. to resign. He refused and contested his termination, citing the 10 months left in his four-year term.

His firing ignited an ongoing debate among legal experts, legislators and others over the president's power to terminate federal officials with time left on their terms, 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."

He wasn't alone. On Biden's first day, he also fired Kathleen Kraninger, who had three years left as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Turning her back on desperate Americans, she acted instead to protect and empower predatory lenders and debt collectors.

By his second day, Biden also had fired Alice Stock, the NLRB anti-union deputy general counsel who'd taken over for Robb.

Biden appointed Peter Ohr, the board's regional director in Chicago, as acting general counsel. In 2014, Ohr notably upheld the rights of Northwestern University football players who'd voted to organize a union — a pioneering decision even though the full NLRB over tuned it.

Ohr said he will vigorously enforce the board's mission under the NLRA, "to ensure workers' fundamental rights of association at the workplace are protected to the fullest extent of the law."

During Robb's tenure, the GOP-led board undermined the NLRA, acting to expand employer power, allow managers to search workers' cars and personal items, restrict union apparel, eject union organizers from public spaces, more easily withdraw union recognition, discriminate against union members in the workplace, thwart protests and disregard the rights of workers at subcontractors and franchises, among other harm done.

But things began to change overnight Jan. 20. In addition to hiring Ohr, Biden appointed pro-worker member Lauren McFerran as chair.

She replaced union-avoidance lawyer John Ring at the helm of the five-seat board. A 3-2 split favors the president's party, allowing for vigorous debate. But in practice the past two years, the minority was all but silenced.

One or both of the seats that belonged to Democrats during the Trump administration has been vacant since early 2019, due to then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's refusal to act on nominations.

McFerran was the only member left looking out for workers and unions. While unable to sway her counterparts, she compiled a record of blistering dissents that methodically cracked the shaky foundations of the majority's 3-1 rulings.

But for seven months when her first term expired in December 2019, workers had no voice at all. Steered by Robb, the all-Republican board issued 3-0 rulings against workers with abandon.

McConnell finally relented last July, allowing McFerran to be reconfirmed. Although she has some leverage now as chair, she is still the lone Democrat until the Senate confirms a nominee for the vacant seat.

Even then, Democrats won't have a 3-2 majority until at least August, when one of the three GOP seats opens up.

Stephenson said unions will push the Senate's new Democratic majority to act quickly on NLRB confirmations and other worker-friendly nominees for the Department of Labor and other federal agencies.

"President Biden didn't waste a minute doing right by workers and unions, as he's done for a half century as a U.S. senator and vice president," he 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."


Former NLRB General Counsel Peter Robb

The First Energy Bill in Half a Generation
Means IBEW Jobs, Now and in the Future

The most important reform to U.S. energy policy in more than a decade passed nearly unnoticed at the end of December.

Multibillion-dollar reforms to one of the largest parts of the U.S. economy affecting millions of working families were wedged into a corner of the gargantuan $900 billion Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act. It was passed simultaneously with the $1.4 trillion omnibus government spending measure, distinguishing the single 5,000 page, $2.3 trillion dollar bill as the largest in U.S. history.

However the sausage was made, the energy policy components of the bill finally, if not fully, brought some high priorities for the membership of the IBEW into law.

The energy-related sections of the bill included a decade's worth of pent-up ideas with all or part of 37 Senate bills — including 29 bipartisan bills — sponsored by 70 senators.

"Think about what has happened in the last 10 years: the revolution in renewables, the rise of domestic natural gas, the closure of nuclear power stations, smart metering and smart grids. That happened with Congress all but on the sidelines," said Political and Legislative Director Austin Keyser. "We hope that this is just a sign of what is coming as new leadership steps up on Capitol Hill."

The bill authorizes more than $35 billion over the next decade for carbon capture and removal, energy storage, wind, solar and advanced nuclear.

It extends renewable energy and building efficiency tax incentives, authorizes a record number of Army Corps of Engineers projects, opens the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission up to the public and phases out the use of hydrofluorocarbons, an extremely potent greenhouse gas thousands of times worse than carbon dioxide.

While Davis-Bacon prevailing-wage standards won't apply to all the bill's spending, as Democrats originally wanted, they will be applied for the first time to spending in solar, wind, waterpower, grid modernization and carbon removal research and development.

"This is a win for organized labor, sure, but it's also a win for taxpayers," Keyser said. "Our industry has never been one where you want to cut corners on competence and safety."

The majority of the reforms affecting IBEW members were in a section of the bill called the Energy Act of 2020.

The two largest beneficiaries were advanced nuclear research, which received a combined $6.6 billion, and carbon capture, storage and removal, which received a combined $6.2 billion, according to an analysis by professor Leah Stokes of the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

"Despite the severe pressure it has been put under, nuclear power is a necessary component of the transition to a carbon-free energy future. We need to invest in it like our future depends on it, because it does," said Utility Director Donnie Colston.

A separate section will release $24 billion to support the deployment of carbon-reducing projects that was already authorized but the Trump administration refused to disburse. The Title XVII loan program, first authorized in 2005 and expanded in 2009, now must use the $10.9 billion for advanced nuclear energy, $8.5 billion for advanced fossil energy, and $4.6 billion for renewable projects funding.

The money for advanced nuclear will support projects that use lower-radiation fuel, smaller, modular reactors that are cheaper to build and can shut themselves down without human intervention, as well as reactors that use recycled fuel now regarded as dangerous waste.

The Department of Energy also received nearly $5 billion to establish a program to bring fusion power — the process at work inside stars — from experiments on lab benches to the market.

While the funding for research that may reshape IBEW jobs in the future was substantial, there is a great deal in the bill that will boost IBEW jobs now.

One of the highest priorities for the IBEW was the extension of multiple tax credits that have kickstarted many renewable energy projects.

The investment tax credit (ITC, mostly used by solar) was extended two years to 2023 and will now include waste-heat-to-power projects; the production tax credit (PTC, mostly used by wind) got a one-year extension until 2023.

The 30% offshore wind credit was extended five years to 2025.

Research on renewables got a $4 billion bump and the energy secretary will be required to issue permits for at least 25 GW of solar, wind or geothermal electricity projects on federal land by 2025.

The carbon capture credit had given developers of carbon capture projects until the end of 2023 to start construction. Now, they will have until the close of 2025.

The Energy Department will also begin funding research projects on ways to remove carbon directly from the atmosphere.

The commercial building tax deduction for energy efficiency upgrades was made permanent and there was increased funding for myriad programs that encourage energy efficiency in existing buildings and industry including rebates for the installation of efficient motors and transformers.

There is also $1 billion for energy storage, $2.4 billion for grid modernization and $1.7 billion to expand the Weatherization Assistance Program, which helps fund energy-efficiency retrofits for low-income homeowners.

Billions in work from these initiatives could go to IBEW signatory contractors and result in thousands of IBEW construction jobs.

For utility members, Congress provided relief for struggling employers, weighed down by nonpayment from customers struggling from the pandemic-related economic downturn.

Congress injected $3.75 billion into the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program and payments from the $25 billion rental assistance program in the coronavirus relief bill can now be used to pay utility bills.

It's a good start, Keyser said.

"I'm not going to pretend this is anybody's ideal bill," he said. "But this one actually became law, which makes it the very rarest kind of bill these last few years."

And with a new majority leader in the Senate and a friend in the White House, International President Lonnie R. Stephenson said he is confident this is just the start.

"For too long working people have been told we have to choose between an energy sector that works with the environment and one that creates good jobs. It's always been a lie, and this bill proves it again," Stephenson said. "Now that they are in power, our job is to give our friends the support they need to create an energy sector that works for us and for future members of the IBEW."


Congress passed the first major energy reform in more than a decade as 2020 ended.
Credit: Creative Commons / Flickr user 100is now

House Members Announce Labor Caucus

Two members of the U.S. House of Representatives, Donald Norcross of New Jersey and Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, announced the start of a Congressional Labor Caucus to advance the needs of the labor movement, combat the issues working families face and connect legislators directly with unions and union leaders.

"Labor has shaped my life, taking me from the construction site to Congress," said Norcross, who is a member and former business agent of Folsom, N.J., Local 351. "While the Trump Administration has tried to diminish labor rights, President Joe Biden's incoming administration understands the dignity of work and that workers' rights are human rights. Every American worker should have the opportunity to earn a fair day's wage for a fair day's work, and working families deserve a bigger voice in Congress. I look forward to working together with our brothers and sisters in labor to pass legislation for American workers and their futures."

While Congress has had caucuses dedicated to the issues of working families before, this marks the first time such a group has been started by two union members in the House. Pocan is a member of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades. Announced on Nov. 13, the caucus already has close to 100 members.

"What's interesting is that this really crosses most of your traditional Democratic factional lines, because what most people talk about at home are core economic issues," Pocan told Jacobin magazine. "Can they pay their rent or mortgage? Do they have health insurance for their family? Can they take a family vacation? Almost all of those intersect with issues that are lumped into the labor category."

Among its priorities will be passing legislation like the Protecting the Right to Organize, or PRO, Act and the Raise the Wage Act. The PRO Act would make it easier for people to join unions through a number of reforms including modernizing the definition of unfair labor practices and allowing fines or lawsuits against employers who try to keep workers from forming bargaining units. The Raise the Wage Act would increase the federal minimum wage from its current level of $7.25 an hour — a number that hasn't increased in a decade — to $15.

Both bills passed in the House but stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate. With the start of a new legislative session in January, they will need to be reintroduced and essentially restart the process over again. In addition to legislation, the caucus can also encourage executive action, which goes through the president, like reversing much of the damage done to unions and federal workers through Trump's pen.

Norcross and Pocan are also prioritizing a coronavirus-related emergency temporary standard for working people through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Despite the skyrocketing number of cases still being reported across the country, the federal agency tasked with worker safety has largely avoided doing anything concrete.

Labor caucus members, as well as the unions they plan to work with, are hopeful the new administration, led by Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, will be more interested in using OSHA for its original and intended purpose and issue standards that keep all workers as safe as possible during the ongoing pandemic.

The new labor group has already sent a letter to congressional leadership requesting funding for programs that implement and enforce worker safety measures, protect the right to organize at work, and provide access to employer and employee training — especially registered apprenticeships — in any final appropriations package for the 2021 fiscal year.

Norcross also worked with New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy on a state-level mandatory safety standard to keep workers safe from the coronavirus. Murphy signed the executive order at the end of October.

"When you give working people a voice everybody wins, and with two card-carrying union members at the helm of this new labor caucus, we can start to do just that," said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. "Whether it's getting pro-worker safety standards through OSHA, the PRO Act passed, or new executive actions, we stand ready to work with our allies for the benefit of all our members, and all working people across the country."


Reps. Donald Norcross of New Jersey and Mark Pocan of Wisconsin have announced the start of a Congressional Labor Caucus. Norcross is also a member of Folsom, N.J., Local 351.