Posts Tagged ‘NLRB’
Friday, May 17th, 2013
Last month a few hundred retail and fast-food workers, from places like Sears, Dunkin’ Donuts, and McDonald’s, walked off their jobs for a rally in downtown Chicago. Carrying signs saying “Fight for 15” (or “Lucha Por 15”) and “We Are Worth More,” these workers make $9 or $10 an hour, at best, and they figure they’re worth at least $15.
A one-shift walk-out and protest by a few hundred out of the thousands of such workers in the Chicago Loop and along Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile cannot have the economic impact of a traditional strike – one that shuts down an entire workplace or industry for an extended period of time and, therefore, can bend an employer’s will. And these workers’ chances of getting $15 an hour any time soon are worse than slim. This “job action,” bolstered by community supporters organized by Action Now and with help from Service Employees International Union organizers, is more in the nature of a public protest than a “real strike.” You could even call it “a public relations stunt,” but you’d be wrong to dismiss it as inconsequential.
“Public relations,” ironically, has a bad image. But think of it as workers witnessing their own plight, calling for others in similar situations to join them and appealing to those of us with decent incomes to support them. Witnessing, with its religious overtones, is not intended as an immediately practical action. It’s first about individuals summoning the courage to put themselves forward to make a public claim that they are one of thousands (millions nationally) who are being treated unjustly. In this case, it means taking the risk that they may be fired or otherwise disciplined for leaving work and going into the streets to proclaim “We are worth more.”
Witnessing is meant to make us think about justice as the witnesses simultaneously inspire and shame us with the courage of their individual actions. I was at one of the first draft-card burnings that protested the Vietnam War in 1965, and I remember saying something like, “I’d do that if I thought it would do any good,” while knowing in my heart of hearts that I didn’t have the guts to take that kind of risk then. But it inspired and shamed me – and thousands and then hundreds of thousands of others — to do many other things to fight against that war as we inspired and bolstered (and exerted peer pressure on) each other.
For the broader public, these initial job actions – in New York and Chicago among retail and fast-food workers; in California and Illinois among workers at Walmart warehouses; and all over the place amongWalmart retail workers – are “public relations” that raise awareness and pluck consciences. But for workers who watched workmates walk off the job to witness for them, there may be some of that inspiration and/or shame that is a particularly powerful call to action. That’s what organizers are counting on, in the hope that the numbers of such workers will grow helter-skelter across the retail industry, eventually initiating a contagion of worker direct action that can put these workers in a position to negotiate for “labor peace,” with or without the blessing of the National Labor Relations Board.
There’s another determined witness who couldn’t be more unlike these striking workers. He’s a retired law professor from the University of Texas, Charles Morris, who is a leading expert on the legislative and early administrative history of the National Labor Relations Act and the Board that enforces it. In a 2005 book,The Blue Eagle at Work, Morris makes the legal case that the Act defined a labor union as any group of two or more workers who act together (“in concert”) to seek redress of grievances from their employer. According to Morris, the “concerted activity protection” articulated in the Act means that employers cannot legally fire workers for forming a non-majority or “members-only” union (as few as two workers acting together), and what’s more, an employer is legally bound to “bargain in good faith” with that union.
Through meticulous legal research, Morris has shown that these worker rights were in the Act from the beginning but have been forgotten by the subsequent customary practice of defining a union as only that group of workers who have formally voted to be represented by a petitioning union. What’s more, other legal scholars have now signed on to Morris’s legal interpretation and are ready to bolster it before an NLRB that is willing to hear their case. There would be such an NLRB, what Morris calls “a friendly Board,”if Republican Senators would allow a vote on President Obama’s nominees for the Board.
A favorable NLRB ruling would be important for a variety of legally technical reasons that workers and organizers could use to their tactical and strategic advantage – none of which includes the expectation that employers will voluntarily obey the law just because it is the law. But equally important is that Morris’s reading of the Act’s history restores the original meaning of a labor union that is based on workers’ decisions to act together “in concert” with one another. That is, a labor union is not just an institution with a bureaucracy and a marble palace in Washington, D.C., though it may be that as well. It is any group of workers in any workplace, no matter how big or small, who decide to and then do act in concert to advance their own interests in their workplace.
In March Chicago Working-Class Studies helped organize a public forum that brought Charles Morris together with workers and organizers from Fight for 15, the Walmart retail and warehouse strikers, and two other groups who are already acting as unions under this definition. Though there were some disagreements between the elderly legal scholar and the mostly young workers and organizers — one emphasizing the importance of politics and administrative case law in the long run, the others focused on the potential of direct action in the here and now – they agreed that if and when the two come together, the possibilities for a worker-led upsurge of union organizing are great.
Nonetheless, through their actions these workers have already changed what a labor union is and is thought to be. It is now, and really always has been — even a century before the National Labor Relations Act was passed in 1935, even when it was an illegal “conspiracy” — simply a group of two or more workers acting in concert with one another. To be really effective there will need, of course, to be many, many more than the hundreds and thousands who have begun this process. But it starts with a few brave witnesses who take a risk and ask others to join them. The peer pressure is now on the rest of us.
This article was originally printed on Working-Class Perspectives on May 6, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.
About the Author: Jack Metzgar is a retired Professor of Humanities from Roosevelt University in Chicago, where he is a core member of the Chicago Center for Working-Class Studies. His research interests include labor politics, working-class voting patterns, working-class culture, and popular and political discourse about class.
Friday, April 12th, 2013
Last June, Cablevision workers in the Bronx voted against joining the Communications Workers of America by a landslide, with 43 workers voting in favor of unionization and 121 workers voting against it. Now, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) says that it plans to file a complaint against Cablevision, accusing the company of engaging in illegal conduct in the lead-up to the election.
On Monday, the NLRB said that it had authorized the issuance of a complaint against Cablevision, having found that two days before the Bronx election, in a speech to workers, Cablevision CEO James Dolan personally threatened to deny job and training opportunities to workers who voted for the union. The NLRB also accuses Cablevision of attempting to deter workers from joining unions by excluding Brooklyn Cablevision workers —who voted to unionize in early 2012—from the raises the company gave to thousands of non-unionized Cablevision workers.
CWA said the NLRB complaint vindicated its belief that Cablevision has acted illegally in order to prevent workers from joining the union.
“Whether it’s interfering with a fair election in the Bronx, or refusing to sign a fair contract in Brooklyn, Cablevision’s behavior is despicable and shameful,” said Chris Calabrese, executive vice president of CWA Local 1109 and the lead organizer in CWA’s contract campaign for Cablevision workers in Brooklyn. “There’s no excuse for any business to intimidate its workers in an effort to prevent them from exercising their right to organize and join a union.”
Cablevision has denied the charges.
“The CWA’s allegations are not accurate and are part of the CWA’s ongoing campaign to damage Cablevision’s reputation,” Cablevision spokesperson Whit Clay said in an email to Working In These Times. “This complaint is not a finding of any wrongdoing and now the matter will proceed to an administrative law judge and we look forward to an impartial hearing so that the facts can be fully understood.”
NLRB Region 2 Director Karen Fernbach told the New York Times that “the NLRB would ask a judge to order Cablevision to desist from engaging in any future illegal activities should the communications workers seek another unionization vote in the Bronx.” However, before the case goes before a judge, the NLRB is offering Cablevision a chance to reach a settlement.
CWA did not seem optimistic that Cablevision would allow the case to go to trial.
“We predict that James Dolan will try to sweep these charges under the rug by seeking a settlement of the complaint with the NLRB,” Calabrese said. “He knows his actions were so egregious that no judge will find him innocent. If there was no guilt on his part, surely an individual of his reputation would have the courage of his convictions to stand trial and prove his innocence.”
Cablevision did not respond to a request for comment on Calabrese’s prediction that the company would seek a settlement.
This article was originally posted on the Working In These Times on April 9, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.
About the Author: Mike Elk is a Pittsburgh native and labor journalist for In These Times. His investigative work has been cited on the front page of the New York Times and debated by Whoopi Goldberg and Barbara Walters on ABC’s The View. Elk won a Sidney Award for his coverage of how corporations crafted legislation to exempt prison labor from U.S. minimum wage laws.
Wednesday, April 10th, 2013
President Obama announced three nominations to the National Labor Relations Board Tuesday:
His new nominees include two Republicans, lawyers Harry I. Johnson, III and Philip A. Miscimarra, and he also renominated Democrat Mark Gaston Pearce, who is currently serving on the board.“With these nominations there will be five nominees to the NLRB, both Republicans and Democrats, awaiting Senate confirmation,” Obama said in a statement. “I urge the Senate to confirm them swiftly so that this bipartisan board can continue its important work on behalf of the American people.”
Because Senate Republicans have filibustered previous nominees, the labor board is currently operating with three recess appointees in order to have the quorum it needs to function. A federal appeals court has overturned those recess appointments, however, threatening the labor agency’s decisions of the past year and imperiling enforcement of labor law while the case is appealed to the Supreme Court.
The nomination of two Republicans to the bipartisan board along with the renomination of a Democrat means that if Senate Republicans once again block the appointments, it becomes that much clearer that the main goal is blocking enforcement of labor law by preventing the NLRB from being able to function at all.
This article was originally posted on the Daily Kos on April 9, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.
About the Author: Laura Clawson is an editor at the Daily Kos.
Monday, April 1st, 2013
Last November, Phil Bailey’s boss at Roadlink Workforce Solutions, a firm providing temporary staff to businesses, fired him and a co-worker, accusing them of having put up pro-union stickers in their workplace. Bailey denied any involvement. When two other workmates came to his defense, their boss fired them as well. All four workers filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board, which issued a formal complaint at the end of February saying that Roadlink had violated the workers’ federally protected right to “concerted action” for “mutual aid.” The NLRB has planned a hearing in May on its order that Roadlink reinstate the four workers with back pay.
But Bailey wants Walmart to make sure he gets his job back now.
Why Walmart? Because Walmart owns the giant distribution center in Elwood, Ill., where Bailey worked. As with most of its logistics hubs, the world’s largest retailer contracts with one firm—Schneider Logistics—to manage the warehouse, and Schneider subcontracts with several staffing companies, including Roadlink, to provide most of the workforce. Such complex, layered contractual relations insulate Walmart from responsibilities to employees and make it easy to get rid of workers by canceling contractors if, for example, workers ever tried to form a union.
“Everything in there is set by Walmart,” Bailey says. “They tell Schneider how much has to be shipped every day and the staffing levels. It’s very much Walmart running the show.”
As members of the Warehouse Workers Organizing Committee, Bailey and co-workers are indeed trying to form a union to negotiate hours of work, pay, safety protection, and enforcement of federal and state labor laws. Those critical issues provoked roughly 40 workers from Walmart’s Elwood warehouse, including Bailey, to strike for three weeks starting last September 15. But since their return, workers say, Roadlink and other staffing subcontractors have harassed, disciplined and dismissed workers who are union supporters or who take even modest, legal actions, like wearing union t-shirts. At times, the subcontractors disciplined workers with cooperation of Schneider, which the NLRB named as a respondent in its recent complaint.
But Walmart, whose representatives frequently visit the warehouse, according to workers, ultimately calls the shots by setting terms for the contractors. No union recognition or contract with those contractors would mean much without Walmart’s acquiescence. And Walmart maintains—but rarely enforces—its Standards for Suppliers, which among other provisions, requires respect for workers’ freedom of association.
As workers in Walmart’s distribution centers from Chicago to California have organized and protested over the past couple of years, they have demanded with growing intensity that the retail and logistics giant take responsibility for warehouse working conditions. In January, lawyers with the support group and worker center Warehouse Workers United (WWU) added Walmart to the list of defendants in a case charging massive wage theft at the company’s Mira Loma, Calif., warehouse. WWU recently presented two Walmart board members petitions with 20,000 signatures asking Walmart to take responsibility for protecting rights of workers employed by its contractors and suppliers. In January, the state of California ruled that Quetico LLC, a Chino, Calif., warehouse serving mainly Walmart, had cheated its workers out of more than $1 million in wages over three years. (The company has said it will appeal and, according to workers, has harassed workers more frequently since the state announced its findings.)
At the Elwood, Illinois, warehouse, workers say they believe it’s unlikely that Schneider will renew its subcontract with Roadlink at the end of April. The workers thus feel greater urgency about Walmart intervening promptly with Roadlink to re-hire workers that the NLRB says were unjustly fired—although workers could still win their back pay if a settlement were reached later, as they would have a better chance of getting a job with a new subcontractor if they were working at the warehouse when a new contractor starts operations. A Warehouse Workers for Justice internet campaign launched on March 12 mobilized thousands of supporters on its first day to ask Walmart to intervene.
Still out of work, Bailey says, “We should be returned to our jobs in that warehouse whatever shell games Walmart plays. I’d like my job back because I was illegally fired. I’m confident about getting my back pay, but getting the job back is the more important point.”
Mike Compton, another leader of the Warehouse Workers Organizing Committee, also wants his job back at the Elwood warehouse. In November, during breaks, after work, at ball games and at other occasions when he was not working, Compton collected the signatures of about 175 warehouse employees from half a dozen subcontractors on a petition about workplace grievances. On November 15, he was preparing to join a delegation of workers and community supporters to deliver the petition to Roadlink managers when his boss told him, “I’m taking you out of service.”
“I’d never heard that phrase used [about] people before,” Compton said, “but they treat us like machines anyway.” The next day, managers called to say he was suspended; the next week, he received a second call telling him that he was terminated. They accused him of disrupting work by collecting signatures during his work hours before the petition presentation, but Compton denies their charge, saying he had carefully concealed the previously signed petition in his jacket all morning for safekeeping.
Compton wants Walmart to enforce its Standards for Suppliers and insist that Roadlink recall him to work. “That was one thing we wanted when we went out on strike—for Walmart to take responsibility for workers,” he says. “They have standards for suppliers, but I’ve never seen them, and they sure aren’t followed. I’m still trying to get my job back because legally I think I should be back, and I want to show other workers, ‘Look, I stood up, and I’m still here.’”
And that’s a message that Walmart—despite its professed standards, and despite the law of the land—apparently does not want other workers to hear.
This article was originally posted on the Working In These Times on March 18, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.
About the Author: David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.
Wednesday, March 27th, 2013
The day-to-day application of key federal protections for workers’ collective bargaining rights is becoming paralyzed, say legal experts and union organizers, as employers across the country realize that a recent federal court decision effectively allows them to ignore the enforcement of the landmark National Labor Relations Act.
The implementation of the New Deal-era law—which protects the right of most workers in private industry to form unions and negotiate collectively with employers—is reported to be slowly grinding to a halt as result of a January 25 court decision in Noel Canning v. NLRB [PDF]. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that President Barack Obama improperly employed the recess appointments clause of the constitution to name new members of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). This means, in effect, that almost 800 NLRB actions taken since the January 2012 recess appointments are unenforceable and that the current board is powerless to implement new orders. Or, as former NLRB Chairman William B. Gould IV tells In These Times: “Compliance with NLRB enforcement is voluntary for employers at this point.”
“There is plenty of evidence that it is having a huge impact on the ground,” says Lynn Rhinehart, co-general counsel of the AFL-CIO. She describes the decision’s effect on union organizing campaigns across the country as “deep and problematic.”
Because of the Canning decision, Rhinehart explains, any employer can now go to a federal appeals court and be granted an indefinite delay in enforcement of any NLRB action taken in the last 14 months. More than 60 employers have filed such cases since the January 25 decision, NLRB spokesperson Nancy Cleeland confirms, and more are expected. All of these cases are officially being held in abeyance pending U.S. Supreme Court action to either affirm or overturn the Canning ruling. That could take up to a year, Cleeland estimates.
Many employers aren’t bothering to formally request delays, but simply ignoring the NLRB rulings that remain in legal limbo. A March 23 story in the Huffington Post details how West Virginia union members mistreated at the hands of anti-union coal operators must now wait indefinitely to see their jobs and backpay restored. Similarly, some Connecticut nursing home workers are being deprived of their legal wages and benefits, says Deborah Chernoff, a spokesperson for the New England division of the healthcare workers union 1199SEIU. In a case notable for both its bitterness and complexity, strikers at five nursing homes operated by HealthBridge are back at work, but not at the compensation levels ordered by the NLRB last year. Instead, they are receiving lower wages and reduced benefits ordered by a bankruptcy judge, and the NLRB is powerless to enforce its order or challenge the bankruptcy court’s decision, Chernoff says.
Meanwhile, the decision has stopped some organizing campaigns in their tracks. Ann Twomey, president of the New Jersey-based Health Professionals and Allied Employees union, says that about 200 nurses fighting for a union at Memorial Hospital of Salem County are “on hold” because of the legal uncertainty at the NLRB. The employer—notoriously anti-union Community Health Systems (CHS)—is stalling talks toward a first contract, despite the union’s 2010 victory in a representation election, Twomey says. Normally in such a case, the union could call on the NLRB to order the employer to the negotiating table. But that’s not an option until the legal authority of the NLRB is re-asserted, says Twomey. “The nurses are functioning as a union and are doing their best,” she says, “But they don’t have a contract, and there isn’t a way forward” without the NLRB.
Resolution of outstanding legal issues in older cases is even affected, says Michael Beranbaum, organizing director of Washington state-based Teamsters Joint Council 28. A Teamsters strike against Oak Harbor Freight Lines in 2008 created legal issues around pensions and healthcare benefits, he tells In These Times, but resolution is being further stalled because the trucking company went to federal court seeking new delays under the Canning decision. “This is an example of the pitiful mess in Washington, D.C.,” resulting from Republican Party obstruction of President Obama’s legitimate appointment powers, he says.
According to a March 11 story in the Wall Street Journal, high-profile employers such as Starbucks, Time Warner, Laboratory Corporation of America Holdings, Domino’s Pizza and McDonald’s are entering the courts in efforts to hamper the actions of the NLRB. In addition to requests for enforcement delays, cases have been filed as a preemptive step to discourage NLRB involvement in workplace disputes at those companies, the newspaper reports.
A common element in many of these cases is that employers are being aided and abetted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, according to Rhinehart and other worker advocates. The Chamber assisted the managers of the Noel Canning Corp. in advancing their court case and the Chamber’s Litigation Center is currently maintaining a Web-based “resource page” for employers to coordinate action against the NLRB. The Chamber is also said to be mobilizing Republican members of the Senate to prevent the confirmation of any new NLRB appointees in its ongoing efforts to immobilize the board, Rhinehart indicates.
“It looks like they [the NLRB] are just out of business for the next nine months, at least,” says former NLRB chairman Gould, who teaches at Stanford Law School and is the author of Labored Relations: Law, Politics, and the NLRB–A Memoir. “It will take at least that long for the Supreme Court to act,” he says, and an anti-union ruling could very well create even more delay and confusion.
“They [the NLRB] are trying to march right along, issuing new decisions and acting as if the D.C. Circuit Court will inevitably be overturned, but employers don’t see it that way at all,” Gould says. “I can tell you right here in the Bay Area that NLRB subpoenas are not being enforced. Employers are just refusing to honor their subpoenas.”
NLRB’s Cleeland confirms Gould’s report about the agency’s subpoenas. “We’ve seen challenges at every level” of the legal process, she says.
Gould says the current situation is reminiscent of the first two years following the 1935 enactment of the original law, also known as the Wagner Act (after its chief sponsor Sen. Robert Wagner, D-N.Y.). Employers actively resisted the new law on a large scale, Gould says, and many refused to cooperate in any way until the Supreme Court ruled on its validity.
“Back in those days there was something called the Liberty League that cheered the employers on. The Chamber of Commerce is playing that role today,” Gould says. “So this is not new. Their antipathy to labor law and to the NLRB is longstanding. The only thing that’s new is that they [NLRB opponents] are sitting pretty ….They don’t have to do anything” to comply with the Wagner Act until the Supreme Court clarifies the situation.
Not all union organizing is affected by the Chamber of Commerce’s efforts to neuter the NLRB. For example, railroad and airline workers are not covered by the Wagner Act, and campaigns in those sectors are going forward unaffected because they are under the aegis of the separate National Mediation Board. Likewise, public sector employees are not covered by the 1935 law, so the Canning decision does not impact their union initiatives at local, state and federal levels.
AFL-CIO’s Rhinehart says the mess at the NLRB could best be cleared up if the U.S. Senate simply confirmed the new NLRB nominations submitted this year by the Obama Administration. A new board could then re-certify the decisions already made and return to work as normal, she says. But that doesn’t seem likely anytime soon, Rhinehart reluctantly concedes, and thus some action by the Supreme Court seems required to get labor law back on track. Until then, it appears that the Chamber of Commerce has succeeded in effectively preventing the NLRB from doing its job.
This article was originally posted on the Working In These Times on March 26, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.
About the Author: Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.
Wednesday, January 30th, 2013
The stunning decision today by a federal court to invalidate President Obama’s appointments to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is being treated by the media primarily as a constitutional power struggle between the president, the Senate and the judiciary. But for labor unions—and the millions of workers they represent—the court ruling is just the latest evidence that the NLRB—a New Deal-era federal agency set up to handle all labor disputes—needs updating. It’s time for a new, more decentralized approach to protecting worker rights that supplements the current structure, which funnels all worker complaints through a single central agency in Washington D.C.
The current NLRB delivered a number of significant pro-worker decisions in 2012, all of which may now be in jeopardy. In a single year, workers gained greater protections in their use of social media; protections from employer-mandated dispute resolution programs; and greater protections for automatic dues deductions, among others. After years of pro-employer boards, many in labor saw the current incarnation, which has served since January 2012, as providing a necessary rebalance of power. However, the NLRB was only able to reach these pro-worker decisions because President Obama used his recess appointment powers to appoint progressive members.
Now, that act may be erased. On Friday, a three-judge panel of the Federal District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia unanimously held that President Obama violated the Constitution when he made three recess appointments to the NLRB last January. The court rested its analysis on the definition of the word “the,” stating, “Then, as now, the word ‘the’ was and is a definite article.” Therefore a recess appointment must take place during “the recess” rather than “a recess.” In this instance, the Senate was not in session, but was not strictly in “the recess,” as it was gaveled in and out every few days.
If this decision stands, the NLRB of the past year will have had only one properly appointed member, Chairman Mark Pearce. Hundreds of board decisions will be retroactively invalidated, and the board will be unable to function until at least two additional members are confirmed by the Senate. With the latest attempt at filibuster reform having failed, it is unlikely that the Republican minority in the Senate will allow new appointees to proceed quickly, if at all.
Since all labor disputes must proceed through the NLRB, this ruling could leave workers with no venue to protect their unionization and bargaining rights. As former Board Chair William Gould wrote in the New York Times in 2011, before Obama made the recess appointments, no quorum on the Board would mean that:
Workers illegally fired for union organizing won’t be reinstated with back pay. Employers will be able to get away with interfering with union elections. Perhaps most important, employers won’t have to recognize unions despite a majority vote by workers. Without the board to enforce labor law, most companies will not voluntarily deal with unions.”
It was this reality that led the sole Republican member on the then-three-person board to consider resigning in order to rob it of a quorum. (The GOP has long loathed the NLRB). Now, the D.C. Circuit Court has held that millions of workers will have their workplace rights suspended because of the definition of a definite article in the Constitution.
The Obama administration will certainly appeal the D.C. Circuit’s decision to the Supreme Court, but given the high court’s current composition, it is unlikely that the decision will be overruled. The four conservative Supreme Court Justices can usually be counted on to vote against workers’ rights, and Justice Kennedy will likely be persuaded by the D.C. Circuit’s constitutional exegesis and appeal to Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary.
Labor should take this opportunity to look beyond the NLRB as the sole source of workers’ labor rights. The court’s decision on Friday has made apparent that the board has become too weak to remain the only venue where workers can seek relief for labor rights violations.
It is time to broaden the rights of workers by making labor organizing a civil right, so when employers illegitimately fire or discriminate against workers for organizing a union, workers can appeal not only to the NLRB, but also to a federal court. Just like victims of gender or racial discrimination, workers who suffered discrimination on the basis of union activity would get their day in court. As we discuss in our recent book, this proposal has many discrete benefits under a fully functional board. But it becomes a dire necessity with the prospect of the NLRB remaining defunct for a long stretch of time.
Writing labor rights into our civil-rights legislation does not entail scrapping the NLRB, but rather giving workers the same choice they have with other forms of discrimination: to proceed through an agency or through the courts. The conferral of such a choice may actually strengthen the NLRB by removing some of the enormous political pressures that the noard currently faces as the sole arbiter of labor rights. An NLRB that doesn’t have to carry the weight of every labor rights fight could devote itself to pursuing egregious or particularly difficult cases. Conservatives would have less incentive to rob the NLRB of a quorum if workers could still proceed through the courts and receive potentially greater remedies.
It’s unlikely we’ll see compromise on this issue from an increasingly intransigent GOP that has proven happy to gum up the works of government. Republicans have no incentive to confirm Obama’s NLRB nominees when a non-functioning board will render moot many of the nation’s labor laws and dramatically shift power from workers to corporations, which has been a core GOP goal. Labor should continue to work to strengthen the NLRB, but should also think about moving beyond it. A year’s worth of pro-worker precedent has been erased in a single day; that should be a wake-up call.
This article was originally published by Working In These Times. Reprinted with Permission.
About the Authors: Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, and Moshe Z. Marvit, a Century fellow and labor and civil rights attorney, are coauthors of Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right: Rebuilding a Middle-Class Democracy by Enhancing Worker Voice (2012).
Thursday, January 3rd, 2013
The NLRB in the past few weeks made public a number of significant decisions, most reached in the final days of the term of Member Brian Hayes, which ended on December 16. The Board continues with three members, Chairman Mark Gaston Pearce and Members Richard F. Griffin, Jr. and Sharon Block.
The decisions touch on a variety of issues including social media postings, charter school jurisdiction, backpay awards, the chargeability of certain union lobbying expenses, and an employer’s responsibility to continue dues collection after the expiration of a contract.
Hispanics United of Buffalo
The Board found that the employer unlawfully fired five employees because of their Facebook posts and comments about a coworker who intended to complain to management about their work performance. In its analysis, the Board majority applied settled Board law to the new world of social media, finding that the Facebook conversation was concerted activity and was protected by the National Labor Relations Act. Member Hayes dissented.
Alan Ritchey, Inc.
In a unanimous decision that resolved the last of the two-member cases returned following the 2010 Supreme Court decision in New Process Steel, the Board found that where there is no collectively-bargained grievance-arbitration system in place, employers generally must give the union notice and an opportunity to bargain before imposing discipline such as a discharge or suspension on employees. Member Hayes was recused.
In a decision that will affect most cases in which backpay is awarded, the Board decided to require respondents to compensate employees for any extra taxes they have to pay as a result of receiving the backpay in a lump sum. The Board will also require an employer ordered to pay back wages to file with the Social Security Administration a report allocating the back wages to the years in which they were or would have been earned. The Board requested briefs in this case in July 2012. Member Hayes did not participate in the case.
Chicago Mathematics & Science Academy
Rejecting the position of a teachers’ union, the Board found that it had jurisdiction over an Illinois non-profit corporation that operates a public charter school in Chicago. The non-profit was not the sort of government entity exempt from the National Labor Relations Act, the Board majority concluded, and there was no reason for the Board to decline jurisdiction. Member Hayes dissented in part.
United Nurses & Allied Professionals (Kent Hospital)
The Board, with Member Hayes dissenting, addressed several issues involving the rights of nonmember dues objectors under the Supreme Court’s Beck decision. On the main issue, the majority held that, like all other union expenses, lobbying expenses are chargeable to objectors, to the extent that they are germane to collective bargaining, contract administration, or grievance adjustment. The Board invited further briefing from interested parties on the how it should define and apply the germaneness standard in the context of lobbying activities.
WKYC-TV, Gannet Co.
Applying the general rule against unilateral employer changes in terms and conditions of employment, the Board found that an employer’s obligation to collect union dues under a check-off agreement will continue after the contract expires and before a bargaining impasse occurs or a new contract is reached. Member Hayes dissented.
This post was originally posted on LawMemo on December 21, 2012. Reprinted with Permission.
About the Author: Ross Runkel is the President and Editor of Law Memo. Ross Runkel spoke at the Washington State Bar CLE on Alternative Dispute Resolution on Arbitration: 9th Circuit and Supreme Court Update and Commentary, on September 26, 2008. He was also the lead-off speaker at the Texas District & County Attorneys Association Civil Law Seminar on Recent Trends in National Employment Law, May 16, 2007. Finally, Ross Runkel spoke at the State Bar of Texas Labor & Employment Law Section Annual Update & Skills Conference, on October 7, 2006.
Thursday, November 29th, 2012
WISCONSIN—The union campaign at Palermo’s Pizza in Milwaukee.—which offers a test case in integrating labor, immigrant and community-based organizing—was dealt a painful blow last week by the regional National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB told both sides it would not find the company’s mass firing of immigrant strikers to be illegal, would not protect other strikers from being “permanently replaced,” and would not order the company to enter collective bargaining.
“The Labor Board, it wasn’t very favorable to our cause,” Palermo’s striker Raul de la Torre tells Working in These Times in Spanish. “There was ample evidence to show that the company violated the rights of a majority of workers.”
The decision was announced by labor and management on November 21 and is expected to be issued in writing by the NLRB this week. Organizers celebrated some portions of the NLRB’s decision, including an expected complaint (similar to an indictment) against Palermo’s on other counts of union-busting, including nine other firings. But they pledged to appeal the NLRB’s choice not to pursue the mass termination–a significant legal setback for immigrant worker organizing–and not to require the company to negotiate.
Voces de La Frontera, a low-wage workers’ center and immigrant rights group, has been organizing Palermo’s workers around issues like staffing and wages since 2008 and has helped spur a nationwide boycott of Palermo’s products. Voces Executive Director Christine Neumann-Ortiz said the NLRB’s validation of some of the charges against Palermo’s offered “very good affirmation for the boycott.”
But Neumann-Ortiz called the decision not to prosecute the mass firings “a travesty of justice in terms of immigrant worker rights” that shows how immigration laws are being applied in a way that “is undermining federally protected rights for all workers.” She said workers and their supporters “fully intend on getting that decision overturned both in the streets and in the legal system.”
In an emailed statement, Palermo’s President Giacomo Fallucca wrote, “We are proud that the NLRB decision confirms that we complied with the applicable laws. Voces de la Frontera should be embarrassed that its blatantly false claims have been rejected so soundly.” Dismissing the NLRB’s remaining charges as “minor technicalities,” Fallucca described the decision as “a major victory for Palermo’s and our workers” and urged Voces to “get out of the way” of an NLRB election.
Richard Saks, an attorney for the Palermo’s Workers Union, said it was “significant that the NLRB found Palermo’s guilty of a wide range of various serious violations of federal labor law, including retaliation and surveiling and interfering with employee rights to support the union and engage in protected activities.” But he said the union was “disappointed” that the regional NLRB had not found the firing of 75 strikers to be against the law.
As I’ve previously reported for Working in These Times, Palermo’s workers began actively pursuing unionization in the spring with support from Voces, the AFL-CIO and the United Steelworkers (USW) union (an AFL-CIO affiliate). In May, three-quarters of production workers signed a petition seeking recognition as the Palermo’s Workers Union. By law, companies can choose to recognize a union based on such a demonstration of majority support. Or they can then be forced to recognize a union if workers win an NLRB-supervised election.
Palermo’s refused to recognize the union, and the same day, workers were told that they had 28 days (soon reduced to 10) to prove that their immigration status authorized them to work in the United States.
In response, workers submitted a petition to the NLRB seeking a union election. Many also went on strike. Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in what appears to be the first application of an agreement with the Department of Labor designed to avoid manipulation of ICE for union-busting, announced on June 7 that it was suspending immigration enforcement at Palermo’s. But the next day, Palermo’s fired 75 striking workers. Management called this legal compliance; organizers called it obvious union-busting.
The workers have now been on strike for almost six months. The union election has been repeatedly delayed, both by successive union-busting allegations filed by Voces and, before that, by a petition from a rival union, the United Food & Commercial Workers, to appear as an alternative to the Palermo Workers Union (the PWU is expected to affiliate with the USW). Because of the gravity of the union-busting allegations, the change in the make-up of the potential pool of voters (as strikers are replaced by new hires), and the wide margin by which workers originally petitioned management, USW and Voces began arguing that a fair election was no longer possible, and that the NLRB should issue a bargaining order requiring Palermo’s to proceed directly to negotiations with the PWU instead. Such orders are rare.
The NLRB strategy carried risks from the beginning. Because of the opportunities they provide employers to intimidate workers, and because of the limited leverage they offer to compel employers to actually negotiate in good faith, some major unions have essentially abandoned NLRB elections, opting instead for “comprehensive campaigns” to pressure employers to voluntarily grant union recognition based on a showing of majority support.
Interviewed in September, AFL-CIO Director of Immigration and Community Action Ana Avendaño described the Palermo’s struggle as an example where filing for an NLRB election might be serving an important purpose, because it provided a formal demonstration to ICE that the workers were actively organizing, thus securing the suspension of enforcement. Avendaño said that could make the NLRB filing worthwhile, despite the risks, and even if actual union recognition was won through a voluntary agreement reached because of the strike and the comprehensive campaign.
But the ICE letter didn’t stop Palermo’s from firing 75 workers, and the regional NLRB is not planning to prosecute those terminations. According to Saks, the NLRB “is essentially saying that the company would have acted that [same] way absent the strike and absent the unionization effort.” He added that because the NLRB was not finding the mass firing to be illegal, it also would not consider the strike to be an “Unfair Labor Practices” strike, and thus Palermo’s could legally “permanently replace” those strikers who haven’t been fired.
Saks said that the NLRB’s choice not to issue a bargaining order means that “there will probably have to be an election at some point for union recognition.” He said the Board has not indicated how quickly that could happen. If the regional NLRB’s decision stands, it could wait to schedule an election until after reaching resolution on all the charges it is proceeding with against Palermo’s.
That leaves union activists hoping for one of three results: Getting the regional NLRB’s decision changed on appeal; winning a majority of the current voter pool in an NLRB election; or winning union recognition and the reinstatement of the fired workers directly from Palermo’s through its comprehensive campaign. “All of those options are still on the table,” said Neumann-Ortiz. She said that while the favorable aspects of the NLRB’s decision provide validation for the workers’ allegations, the disappointing ones demonstrate “the importance of continued public support for these workers to have justice prevail.”
So far, the comprehensive campaign’s main lever has been a consumer boycott of Palermo’s pizzas, including pressure on Costco, the chain where the majority of Palermo’s product is sold. Organizers credit behind-the-scenes pressure from Costco—which benefits from a progressive reputation as an “anti-Walmart”—for spurring Palermo’s to seek a meeting with AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka in September. This month, De la Torre and other Palermo’s workers made a national tour, demonstrating at several Costco locations before arriving at headquarters in Washington state, where they met with officials from the company.
De la Torre described the meeting as “very positive” and said the Costco representatives “were surprised to hear what Palermo’s has done to the workers.” At the end of the meeting, said De la Torre, a Costco official “made the comment that if the charges that we made against the company were validated [by the NLRB], they could buy their pizza from any other company.”
The campaign has also targeted universities, including the campuses of the University of Wisconsin. UW-Madison undergraduate Allie Gardner said the boycott is “absolutely a student issue, because we’re on campus and we’re the ones who are paying tuition to go to this school that is then creating contracts with corporations that aren’t honoring the labor policies that we’ve created as an institution.” Gardner is a board member of the United States Students Association and of the statewide UW student council, both of which have passed resolutions calling on universities to support the boycott. The licensing committee at UW-Madison has unanimously called for the university to end its Palermo’s contract; students are pressing the university’s chancellor to honor that recommendation. The UW-Milwaukee student senate recently voted to endorse a boycott as well.
Last month, in an AFL-CIO report and legislative testimony by workers, the campaign also questioned state subsidies provided to Palermo’s.
“With the progress of the strike and the boycott so far, I feel happy,” said De la Torre. “But I’m not yet satisfied.”
Full disclosure: The United Steelworkers is an In These Times sponsor.
This post was originally posted on Working In These Times on November 28, 2012. Reprinted with Permission.
About the Author: Josh Eidelson is a freelance writer and a contributor at In These Times, The American Prospect, Dissent, and Alternet. After receiving his MA in Political Science, he worked as a union organizer for five years. His website is http://www.josheidelson.com. Twitter: @josheidelson E-mail: “jeidelson” at “gmail” dot com.
Thursday, November 15th, 2012
WASHINGTON, D.C. – At a Cornell ILR Alumni Reception on September 20, 2012, I asked NLRB Chairman Mark Pearce, the keynote speaker, about the nearly six-year deliberation and unusual concurrence in Mezonos Maven Bakery, where the NLRB ultimately reversed an Administrative Law Judge’s (ALJ) 2006 decision granting back pay to undocumented workers under the NLRA. Speaking candidly, Chairman Pearce emphasized the importance of trying to find consensus in the Board’s voice, and the difficulty of reconciling this case with a 2002 Supreme Court holding in Hoffman Plastic Compounds v. NLRB that appeared to prohibit back pay remedies for undocumented workers. In recent weeks, Chairman Pearce has added that he “had angst over” the decision, and that “the concept of ‘made whole’ … needs to be examined [by us].”
I first became familiar with Mezonos (and a companion case, Imperial Buffet, though the restaurant-employer later went bankrupt) in the summer of 2011 when working as a Judicial Law Clerk for ALJs Steven Davis and Steven Fish—the finders-of-fact for those cases. These were cases where the employer had flouted their legal obligations to verify work documentation under IRCA, and then further violated the NLRA without having to pay out the central remedy of back pay because the workers were undocumented. Given the inequitable outcomes and the perverse incentives, ALJs Davis and Fish argued for a factual distinction of an employer who was doubly-liable under both IRCA and the NLRA from the Hoffman Plastics scenario of a worker fraudulently submitting false documents to an employer following the legal requirements under IRCA.
On August 9, 2011, the NLRB in its 3-0 decision, following some bruising years after the Boeing case, operating without a sufficient quorum, and an unprecedented attempt by House Republicans to defund the independent agency, locked into politically safe position of extending the Hoffman Plastics holding to cover the Mezonos factual scenario, though then Chairwoman Liebman and incoming Chairman Pearce wrote a concurrence critical of this perverse outcome.
Although a re-thinking of “making whole” may provide a more adequate array of remedies than mere back pay, which is the NLRB’s only real stick in ensuring compliance with its rulings, the NLRB had a strong jurisprudential basis in which to use the fault-based analysis to factually distinguish the Mezonos scenario from Hoffman Plastics. Specifically, there are examples in tort law and contract law, including the “last clear chance” doctrine and exceptions to in pari delicto, which ensure that the fault-ridden party is ultimately held liable even in a legal regime that might suggest otherwise.
As reconsideration was denied by the NLRB in December 2011, if this case ultimately finds its way into the Second Circuit (or, less likely, the D.C. Circuit), it would be worth considering how these arguments for a fault-based analysis might just result in a ruling that helps protect labor rights while still achieving the aims of our national immigration policy. After all, much angst might be resolved by having reconcilable laws work together, rather than interpreting them at cross-purposes.
This article is based on Jon L. Dueltgen’s award winning essay. He placed second place in a writing competition on labor and employment law offered by the College of Labor and Employment Lawyers. An earlier version of the paper also received recognition from the Louis Jackson National Writing competition.
About the Author: Jon L. Dueltgen is a third-year law student at the University of Pennsylvania and a graduate of Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. His paper on Mezonos Brooklyn Bakery: A Bridge Too Far for Hoffman Plastics was most recently recognized by the ABA/College of Labor and Employment Law National Writing Competition.
Tuesday, October 30th, 2012
NEW YORK CITY—National Labor Relations Board Chairman Mark Pearce says his agency could pursue new remedies to punish employers who retaliate against undocumented immigrants for organizing. Last year Pearce interpreted a 2002 Supreme Court decision to rule out back pay as a remedy in such cases, limiting the NLRB’s options of financial penalties.
Interviewed Friday by Working In These Times, Pearce called the tension between immigration law and labor law “extremely frustrating,” and the tools available for protecting undocumented workers against employer crimes “insufficient.”
“The concept of ‘made whole’ by us needs to be examined,” said Pearce, referring to a legal guideline for NLRB remedies. “Perhaps there are things within that concept that we can utilize. Now I can’t articulate what they are, because we’ve got to consider it.”
Pearce made these comments following a forum hosted by Cornell University’s ILR School. In his remarks to the assembled attorneys, Pearce said he “had angst over” his ruling in the NLRB’s Mezonos Maven Bakery case last year. In that 3-0 decision, the NLRB found that a bakery that fired a group of workers who had collectively complained about a supervisor could not be required to pay them back pay, because they were undocumented.
The Mezonos decision cited the US Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in Hoffman Plastic Compounds v. NLRB, which overturned an NLRB ruling granting back pay to an undocumented worker who was fired after trying to form a union (the NLRB is tasked with enforcing and interpreting private-sector labor law, but federal courts have the power to overturn the NLRB). Writing for a 5-4 majority, then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist said that “awarding back pay in a case like this not only trivializes the immigration laws, it also condones and encourages future violations.”
At Friday’s forum, Pearce said that the Hoffman decision had forced him to deny back pay in Mezonos and “continues to create that problem where an employer could get away scot-free” with firing undocumented union supporters. Pearce said he had “struggled with the tension between the National Labor Relations Act, immigration law, and the rights of undocumented workers.” While the NLRB can still use non-economic remedies in such a situation, like requiring a company to post a notice saying it will comply with the law in the future, Pearce said that “seems a little empty” without a financial cost attached.
After the forum, Pearce told Working In These Times that the tension he’d identified could be resolved if a future Supreme Court case offers the NLRB “a more promising, or a more significant remedy to be applied for discriminatees who happen to be undocumented. But otherwise, it would probably have to take a change in the law.”
In the meantime, said Pearce, “the board has a certain degree of discretion with respect to the remedies.” He noted that the NLRB is legally empowered to “make whole” workers who are illegally punished or discriminated against, but is barred from assessing punitive damages against employers. That means that financial penalties against companies generally come in the form of back pay—which Mezonos took off the table for undocumented workers. “So exploration would have to be had,” said Pearce, “as to the full parameters of [the 'made whole'] concept, to see whether or not a remedy could be fleshed out [for] those kinds of violations.”
Such a move “would be significant,” said Ana Avendaño, the AFL-CIO’s director of immigration and community action. “Because under the current structure, employers basically get a free bite at the apple. They can violate the law with impunity.”
Interviewed Saturday by phone, Avendaño disputed Pearce’s view that the Supreme Court’s Hoffman ruling required the NLRB to deny back pay in Mezonos. She said that a lower-level NLRB judge had been right to find that Hoffman didn’t apply in Mezonos, because in Hoffman it was the undocumented worker that had been proven to have violated immigration law, and in Mezonos it was the employer. Avendaño, who was among the attorneys arguing for back pay in Mezonos, said she hopes the second circuit court will reject the NLRB’s Mezonos reasoning and send the case back for a new ruling.
But Avendaño echoed Pearce’s criticism of Hoffman, which she said “has a chilling effect” on undocumented immigrants seeking to organize at work. Ultimately, she said, new legislation will be necessary to restore such workers’ rights, perhaps as part of a broader immigration reform.
Still, Avendaño welcomed the NLRB Chairman’s comments about the possibility of other remedies under current law. Given that the law bars punitive damages, and Hoffman restricts back pay awards to workers, Avendaño said, “one idea that advocates have—and the legal basis for this is sound—is that there could be a fund established, where employers would still have to pay the back pay, but it would go into the fund, not directly to the worker.”
Avendaño said such a “special remedy” would be “less than ideal,” but would be an improvement over the status quo, where employers face a “perverse incentive … to just violate the immigration law, and then violate the [National Labor Relations Act], and have no responsibility for it.”
If a fitting test case reaches the NLRB, said Pearce, “We would have to see whether the board has that kind of authority, or is there something that causes us to feel that we are able to create an exception to the standard remedy.” Avendaño said the AFL-CIO hopes that will be the case: “If there was an opportunity, and we may have one soon, then we certainly are going to advance that argument.”
This article was originally posted on In these Times on October 29, 2012. Reprinted with permission.