Right now, 68% of Americans approve of labor unions. That number is at a more than 50-year high. So what does it mean? I would say it means that America’s workers are hurting, and they know they need a voice in the workplace. And they are right.
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.
Unions are the one force that has the power to close that shameful gap in earnings. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is a key player in making it possible for workers to organize and improve their lot.
The president appoints this federal board, which has done so much to shape American labor practices since its inception 85 years ago. However, the board that President Biden inherited isn’t exactly what was intended.
Under President Ronald Reagan’s two terms spanning the 1980s, the board reversed previous NLRB policy in more than two dozen major cases, almost totally changing to pro-management positions the pro-worker direction it 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 become common. Even more stymying 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 almost 30 years to 2017 and President Donald Trump’s first year in office where we find his Labor Secretary, Alexander Acosta, cheerfully announcing that Ronald Reagan, who did so very much to weaken organized labor, was voted into the Labor Hall of Fame.
One could easily argue that President Trump’s 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.
This board also diminished worker protections under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA/Act) with the administration’s NLRB general counsel (GC), putting into play policies that leave fewer workers protected by the NLRB while working toward changes in the law that directly roll back workers’ rights.
In short, the whole thing was a siege on the American worker.
On Inauguration Day, within a few hours of being sworn in, the new president acted boldly and decisively by firing Peter Robb, President Trump’s appointed NLRB general counsel. Lynn Rhinehart, a senior fellow at the Economic Policy Institute and former general counsel of the AFL-CIO, characterized Robb’s anti-union activities this way:
“A report by the nonpartisan U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that Robb was dismantling the agency from the inside. He reduced staff size, destroyed employee morale, and failed to spend the money appropriated by Congress. This all occurred while Robb was pursuing an anti-worker, pro-corporate agenda.”
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 re-establishing 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.
During the month of August, the board ruled that Amazon illegally discouraged union organization in Bessemer, Alabama, which may lead to a new vote; heard a case against Google for firing multiple employees for circulating a petition calling on the company to stop doing business with ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement); 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.
Ray Curry is president of the United Auto Workers (UAW).