President Obama has nominated five people to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Two are Republicans. All are waiting for confirmation by the Senate. Let your Senators know these nominees should be confirmed so the NLRB can get back to work.
What Is The NLRB?
The NLRB is the agency that "safeguards employees' rights to organize and to determine whether to have unions as their bargaining representative. The agency also acts to prevent and remedy unfair labor practices committed by private sector employers and unions."
The NLRB supervises elections to form or decertify unions in the workplace. It investigates charges that employees, unions or employers violated rules over labor practices and rules on the charges. It works to get problems resolved rather than taken to court. And finally, when the NLRB has issued a ruling that is ignored it can take the parties to court.
But if the NLRB is prevented from operating there is no one to make sure that the rules for labor practices are being enforced. This hurts workers and companies.
Background Of The Nomination Battle
Individual workers have little power when up against giant corporations. They can ask for better pay, benefits and working conditions, please, and the giant companies can just say, "you're fired" if they do -- and working people know that. However, when the employees all band together it gives them collective power. It's the old story of how a person can break a single stick, but when all the sticks are bundled together the person is not able to break them. Banding together the workers have the power to get better wages, benefits and working conditions.
The other side of this is that big companies can make a lot of money if they can keep their workers from organizing unions. So they use their money and power to try to stop workers from organizing unions.
Because the economy does better when people have better wages, benefits and working conditions, and because strikes and lawsuits can plug things up, it is the law that workers have the right to form unions and bargain collectively to balance out the immense power of the giant corporations.
This is why the NLRB battle matters. For years elected officials allied with anti-union businesses worked to block the NLRB from operating, so that workers are not able to form unions and existing unions are not able to enforce labor rules. At the same time these elected officials worked to get anti-union judges into the courts and block impartial judges from being confirmed. This enabled the giant companies to make more money -- and working people less money. (Meanwhile as wages dropped nationally the economy slowed and slowed.)
Workers at Palermo's Pizza in Milwaukee have been striking for two weeks in response to the company using threats and retaliation against workers engaged in a unionization drive. Most extreme among the accusations is the claim that Palermo's attempted to kill the union drive by reporting employees to immigration enforcement for possible deportation. The National Labor Relations Board is intervening and requiring a union election for July 6.
The need for a union at Palermo's is obvious:
“We want Palermo’s to treat us as a person,” striker Orlando Sosa said as he picketed Palermo’s Milwaukee factory.
In interviews last week – some on a picket line, others following a Get Out the Vote Rally led by Jesse Jackson – Palermo’s workers said the strike was caused by years of abusive work conditions and weeks of anti-union intimidation.
“From my point of view, there’s been a lot of exploitation,” says Roberto Silva (he and other Palermo’s workers were interviewed in a mix of English and Spanish). He described being forced to work 70 to 80 hours a week, even while sick, and being threatened with job abandonment when he asked for a break. “You have to work until you can’t,” says Silva.
Jose Ramirez sums up his life as “Just eat, sleep, and work.” In a video posted on the website The Uptake, a worker described being told he had to work the day after he was sent to the emergency room because his fingernail was ripped off by a machine. For years, says Alicia Garcia, workers would blame individual abusive managers, and every time one left, “We would say the next would be better.” Now, she says, they blame Palermo’s itself.
Palermo’s employs nearly 300 workers, and its frozen pizzas are sold by major chains, under multiple labels, across the United States. The company did not respond to a request for comment, but Director of Marketing Chris Dresselhuys told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that “The allegations that have been leveled against Palermo’s are categorically false.” Dresselhuys said that immigration enforcement was unrelated to unionization, that some workers had “abandoned their position” by striking, and that if workers win the union election, “we will work it out.”
The company rejects the claims and says that no union drive existed before they began pursuing immigration enforcement. The facts say otherwise:
Palermo’s workers began organizing in 2008. Throughout the campaign, they’ve worked closely with Voces de la Frontera, an immigrant rights organization and low-wage workers’ center.
“Most of those workers are our members," says Voces Executive Director Christine Neumann-Ortiz. “We definitely have their back.”
Last November, some Palermo’s workers decided it was time to form a union. “We just wanted a voice,” says Silva. “Simply that they listen.”
A month later, workers presented management with a petition addressing issues with safety and discrimination. In April, workers and Voces staff met with staff from the AFL-CIO and the United Steelworkers. (Full disclosure: the USW is an In These Times sponsor.)
Palermo’s workers say they were also inspired by the past year’s uprising at Wisconsin’s Capitol in Madison. “I hadn’t seen that in years,” says Daniel Camano. “Every single advertisement you see for how other people are fighting for the same reason,” says Sosa, “that inspires you to do the same, to work for your rights…That helped us a lot.”
In a letter to the NLRB, union attorney Richard Saks noted that by last month, Palermo’s was engaged in an anti-union campaign: an anti-union poster went up, a manager told a worker not to talk about working conditions, Palermo’s hired notorious anti-union firm Jackson Lewis, and workers heard that the company would require immigration authorization verification of its employees.
On Sunday, May 27, workers decided to formally sign their co-workers up to form a union. Two days later, they submitted signatures to management and asked the company to immediately recognize the union (“majority sign-up”). The company refused. The same day, Palermo’s instructed employees to begin training replacement workers from a temp agency, and gave employees a letter stating that they had 28 days to verify their authorization to be working in the United States. Some workers went on strike that day.
“The company is retaliating,” says Daniel Camano, “using ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] to be able to get rid of all of us that have the most years at the company.” Camano, an employee for nine years, says he was targeted and fired over alleged immigration issues. “This is motivating us to get more involved in the union.”
“The company has used the issue of an ICE audit and the process involved in that as a means to bust the union organizing drive,” says Neumann-Ortiz, “in addition to other forms of retaliation.”
On May 30, workers filed a petition with the NLRB seeking an election to form an independent (unaffiliated) union. According to Voces, a work stoppage the previous day won a three-day hiatus on the hiring of new replacements. But in a meeting with some workers, Voces staff, politicians and clergy, Palermo’s announced that workers would have 10 days, rather than 28, for re-verification of their work authorization. In response, more workers decided to strike the next day. By then, Silva says, “We were organized…We were almost ready.”
That led to a dramatic confrontation on June 1. Workers had planned to mass outside the factory, with those whose shifts ended at 8 AM streaming out of work to meet those already picketing. Having heard about this plan, workers say, Palermo’s barred employees from leaving the building, physically blocking the doors and telling workers they would be fired if they left. Some workers escaped through emergency exits, while others contacted Voces, who called the police. Police collected testimony when they arrived.
The same day, Sacks filed charges of illegal anti-union retaliation with the NLRB, and requested a federal court injunction to force a quick resolution prior to next month’s election. On June 2, according to Neumann-Ortiz, Palermo’s sent the first of multiple waves of letters terminating some strikers.
“People have been explicitly told they’re being fired for participating in the strike,” Neumann-Ortiz says. She says some letters told workers they were being fired for participating in a legally unprotected work stoppage, others told temp workers they were being cut off for participating, and others took the form of “resignation” letters written on behalf of striking workers.
The most recent termination letters, dated June 8, told workers they were being terminated for failure to comply with the 10-day immigration verification deadline announced May 30. Voces alleges that Palermo’s created the 10-day deadline to break the union, and falsely pinned it on ICE. Neumann-Ortiz says that the company “claimed that they were just abiding by this new mandate on the part of ICE, and yet the local ICE confirmed with a representative of the Steelworkers that it wasn’t coming from them. It was coming from the company.” She says workers began receiving these letters Monday, even though the Department of Homeland Security “has informed the company that the verification process has been suspended.”
Conservatives howled loudly when Terence Flynn was appointed to the NLRB, falsely criticizing recess appointments, but are saying nothing about his ethical lapses, since they might've helped Mitt Romney.
National Labor Relations Member Board Terence Flynn resigned Saturday under a cloud of ethical trouble, including potentially leaking sensitive information to an adviser to Mitt Romney. Numerous labor organizations and members of Congress, such as Rep. George Miller, called upon Flynn to resign after it came to light that he leaked confidential information to two former board members, including Peter Schaumber, who was advising Romney on labor issues.
The NLRB Inspector General earlier this year issued two reports describing how Flynn funneled confidential information about NLRB activities and deliberations, including attorney-client privileged information, to two former NLRB members who have worked to undermine and discredit the NLRB. One of those former members was Peter Schaumber—who co-chaired the labor policy advisory group for Mitt Romney’s campaign.
The Inspector General found additional instances when Flynn funneled confidential information to Schaumber. These included a draft of an NLRB decision, dissents before cases have been decided and other information on the NLRB’s internal operations.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka previously called for Flynn to be dismissed from the board and for him to face criminal charges. Trumka's statement from before the resignation:
The report of the Inspector General of the National Labor Relations Board into allegations of improper conduct by NLRB member Terence Flynn confirms a pattern of ethical violations that are nothing less than shocking. The report details numerous instances of then-chief counsel Flynn funneling confidential information about the labor board’s activities and deliberations, including attorney-client privileged information, to two former NLRB members who have been actively engaged in a relentless campaign to undermine and discredit the NLRB through legal and rhetorical challenges to the agency’s activities. One of the former NLRB members who received confidential information—former Chairman Peter Schaumber—is co-chair of the labor policy advisory group for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. The report makes clear that Schaumber used his inside connections through his former chief counsel Flynn to get internal, confidential information that he then utilized in ongoing public attacks on the actions of the NLRB.
These unethical practices are unprecedented and indefensible. NLRB member Flynn should resign immediately. The Department of Justice should quickly investigate and bring criminal charges if violations are found.
Working people deserve to know that public officials who take an oath to honor the public trust will do so—and that is especially true for officials charged with protecting workers’ rights.
These findings also will be a test for candidate Romney. A key adviser has been found to have used his inside connections in a way that resulted in the violation of ethics rules. Allowing Schaumber to remain as an adviser will speak volumes about candidate Romney and the value he places on ethics in government officials. He should renounce these violations and dismiss Schaumber.
Protesting Target's anti-union agenda and other problems
An administrative judge from the National Labor Relations Board has ruled that an election at a Target store in New York is invalid because the company engaged in illegal intimidation of employees, leading to the 137-85 against the union. This would've been the first union at a Target store.
The judge ordered Target, which is notorious for its anti-labor practices, to hold a new election after agreeing with the United Food and Commercial Workers, who had accused the company of intimidating workers ahead of the election, Bloomberg Businessweek reports:
The decision comes almost a year after The United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1500 contested the 137-85 vote against unionization in June 2011. It argued that Target illegally intimidated workers for months leading up to the vote. Target denied the allegations. [...]
“Target completely poisoned the democratic process from day one,” said Patrick Purcell, assistant to the president of the UFCW Local 1500 in an interview with The Associated Press. “And now a judge agreed with everything we said.”
Among the complaints were that Target threatened to shut down the store if workers voted to organize and that employees were interrogated about their union activities. Target did shut down the store for six months for renovations. Most of their other stores undergoing renovations, however, stayed open during the process. Workers who were most vocal in their union support were not allowed to transfer to other stores and were not re-hired when the store re-opened.
Target officials said they "respectfully" disagree with the NLRB decision.
Details of the original complaints against Verizon
Region 2 of the National Labor Relations Board has authorized the issuance of complaints in 58 of 63 cases where the Communications Workers of America filed against Verizon for its actions against workers following the 2011 strike. Now Region 2 will seek to negotiate with Verizon to solve the complaints. If that fails, legal action could follow.
“This is tremendous news for workers who have faced harsh discipline, even firing, from Verizon, that was completely unwarranted,” said Ron Collins, CWA chief of staff.
“This fight has been about economic justice from the beginning. Some 45,000 CWA and IBEW members spent two weeks on the picketline to force this $100 billion company to bargain fairly, not continue to demand givebacks of $1 billion a year.
“Progressive allies and the 99 percent spring coalition are standing with us as workers continue to fight against Verigreedy Verizon and corporate greed across our country. We won’t stop now,” he said.
Among a host of other outlandish claims about unions, former presidential candidate and Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain claimed that even though his former employees at the pizza chain had the right to unionize, he had the right to fire them for doing so. The problem with the claim is that it is 100 percent false:
The National Labor Relations Act forbids employers from interfering with, restraining, or coercing employees in the exercise of rights relating to organizing, forming, joining or assisting a labor organization for collective bargaining purposes, or from working together to improve terms and conditions of employment, or refraining from any such activity. Similarly, labor organizations may not restrain or coerce employees in the exercise of these rights.
Examples of employer conduct that violates the law:
Threatening employees with loss of jobs or benefits if they join or vote for a union or engage in protected concerted activity.
Cain made the claim as part of an interview with Tim Wildmon on American Family Radio. The former candidate went on to blame unions for everything but the John F. Kennedy assassination:
If Governor Walker is recalled, the unions win and Wisconsin loses. I already know businesses in Wisconsin that say if the unions prevail and Governor Walker loses, they are packing up and leaving. We will have the first look at what America will look like if we do not stop this mess ... If the unions win, that means that they don't want balanced budgets, they still want to continue to destroy the state and we will be looking at the first instance, along with California, of what America is going to look like if we don't push back and start to win against some of these forces.
When I ran Godfather's Pizza, my employees had every right - every right - to unionize if they wanted to. The good news is, because of the kind of work environment we created, they didn't want to unionize. But they had every right to unionize. Now, if they had decided to unionize, I could also decide to fire all of 'em.
Since no one ever holds conservative commentators accountable for their outlandish claims, it's certain that when Wisconsin rejects Scott Walker and the state doesn't devolve into anarchy, no one will point out that Cain was wrong.
Despite losing the most egregious anti-union measure in the Federal Aviation Administration re-authorization bill, the so-called 'compromise' that Congress has settled on remains staunchly anti-union and assaults the rights of workers in the airline and rail industries. Republicans had previously included a provision that would count all employees who don't vote in an election to create a union as "no" votes. That was removed from the current version of the proposal. However, a number of anti-union provisions still exist:
In a merger, unions and union contracts could simply be eliminated without cause.
The threshold for initiating a union election would rise from 35 percent to 50 percent, making it much more difficult for elections to even take place.
Current rules allow unions to be formed by a majority of those ballots cast. This compromise does NOT include that rule, meaning it could simply be overturned by the next Republican president and his or her appointees to the National Labor Relations Board, effectively meaning that this right only exists temporarily.
Several unions have come out in opposition to the deal, noting that it is still a clear attack on the rights of workers. They are specifically angry at Democratic leaders for agreeing to the deal.
“For the past year, we have worked to defend the rights of hard-working Americans across the country. Republican attacks on the middle class in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana have been met with national outrage. Sadly, Washington Republicans have failed to listen to the American people. Now they have created a situation where groups of employees are pitted against each other in the FAA reauthorization bill.”
“Members of the Progressive Caucus are committed to protecting the rights of all workers – from the collective bargaining rights of air traffic controllers and the critical runway safety provisions for pilots contained in the FAA bill, to the right to fair election procedures in union organizing drives for airline and rail employees attacked in this bill.”
“Members of the Progressive Caucus will protect all workers’ rights as Republicans continue their attacks on labor throughout this Congress.”
The National Labor Relations Board charged Missouri-based American Water with violating the rights of workers by cutting health care and other benefits for employees in 15 states.
The complaint – issued by NLRB Region 29 in Brooklyn, N.Y. – charges the company with illegally imposing cuts in employees’ healthcare, retiree health insurance, and short-term disability benefits at the beginning of 2011 without having notified federal and state mediation agencies about the ongoing dispute during union contract negotiations.
“This complaint is a critical first step in our efforts to win justice for American Water employees,” declared Michael Langford, National President of the Utility Workers Union of America. “We will challenge this hugely profitable company’s illegal conduct on behalf of every working family at American Water in every way possible.”
The NLRB complaint involves unilateral benefit cuts made by American Water – the largest for-profit water and wastewater utility company in the U.S. – in January 2011 during negotiations for a new national benefits agreement. The agreement is negotiated by a coalition of nine national and international unions led by the UWUA, and covers 3,500 union workers in 70 different bargaining units across the U.S.
The UWUA, which represents the largest number of American Water bargaining units and 2,500 of the company’s 7,700 employees, estimates the backpay involved in the case to be over $4 million. The UWUA filed the charge on behalf of all employees covered by the national agreement.
The NLRB complaint applies to union workers at American Water locations in California, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. The labor board has scheduled a hearing in the case for March 13, 2012 in Brooklyn.
American Water has also been in trouble lately for trying to raise rates on customers and hiring non-union labor from a company that breaks the law. UWUA reports that the company is highly profitable and that the cuts to worker benefits are not necessary and were done unilaterally after the union rejected the company's demands to take the cuts.
Workers and elected officials calling out Redburn Tires in Phoenix, Arizona
The Teamsters have been active in fighting for workers rights across the country in the last year, yet few in the media have covered numerous strikes the union's members are engaged in around the country. The Teamsters is a varied union including warehouse workers, tankhaulers, solid waste workers, rail workers, public services, port workers, newspaper, magazine, and electronic media, industrial trades, freight workers, food processing, dairy, building materials and construction, bakery and laundry workers and numerous others. Currently hundreds of Teamsters members are on strike across the country and some of them have been on strike for more than a year, but very little coverage or actions of solidarity have supported the Teamsters' actions.
We Party Patriots has good summaries of many of the actions:
Pipe Line Contractors Association (PLCA)
This strike started with 200 Pennsylvania and West Virginia workers walking off the job but has since gained support from Teamsters pipeline workers nationwide. The National Pipe Line Agreement between the Teamsters and the PLCA expired on January 31st, 2011 but was extended twice last year. The PLCA’s inability to negotiate a fair deal has caused workers to strike after the latest December 31st, 2011 deadline passed. What is at the heart of the issue is that the PLCA wants to force the Teamsters into 401K retirements instead of their traditional pensions. 401K plans are more vulnerable to Wall Street fluctuations and do not provide the same security as the current pension system the workers are fighting to keep.
CertainTeed — Norwood, MA
In New England, Teamsters have been heading to Norwood, Massachusetts to show their solidarity with CertainTeed employees who have been on strike since their contract expired on December 19th. CertainTeed is a French based company that makes roofing products and asphalt shingles. The 90 affected workers are striking because they need relief in their health care costs which have continued to rise despite past concessions:
C.H. Guenther & Son — San Antonio, TX
Members of Teamsters Local 657 working at C.H. Guenther & Son flour mill in San Antonio, Texas have been on strike since April 25th, 2011. The workers, who make Pioneer brand pancake and pancake mixes, are demanding a raise in wages to counter the rising healthcare costs they are incurring. Another key issue is safety. The union filed charges against the company with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) accusing C.H. Guenther & Son of illegally surveying striking workers. The strike continues today in its 9th month.
In an important move for the rights of American workers, President Barack Obama used recess appointments to seat three new members on the National Labor Relations Board, overcoming Republican obstruction to make sure the Board can continue to operate. Without the appointments, the Board would've fallen below the minimum number of members necessary to maintain a quorum and would've been unable to take any action. Senate Republicans refused to approve any new members to the Board in an attempt to prevent it from doing anything to protect American workers. The new appointees are Department of Labor Attorney Sharon Block, labor lawyer Richard Griffin, and NLRB counsel Terence Flynn.
Like the CFPB, Republicans have spent the past year blocking nominations to the NLRB in an effort to keep the agency from functioning. Those efforts would have paid off soon, since after Craig Becker’s term on the board expired this week, the NLRB would have been reduced to two members, which is the number it had for more than two years from 2008 to 2010. This effectively shuts down the board, since the Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that two members does not constitute a legal quorum, and thus, a two-member board can’t make binding rulings.
All 47 Senate Republicans have warned Obama of a “constitutional conflict” should he choose to use his recess appointment powers — authority he is well within his right to use, as ThinkProgress’ Ian Millhiser noted yesterday — but it was Chief Justice John Roberts, a noted conservative, who suggested the president should make recess appointments to keep the NLRB functioning, as ThinkProgress reported in 2010.
Obama’s appointment of Block, Flynn, and Griffin is important, too, because it boosts the board’s membership to five, protecting its quorum even if member Brian Hayes follows through on his threats to quit. Preserving its right to quorum ensures that its rulings will not be thrown out on legal challenges, as more than 600 cases were by the Roberts Court in 2010.
Having a functioning body, able to enforce laws protecting workers, isn’t just about workers in unions. It matters to all workers. The right to bargain, and the NLRB that protects it, have been frequent targets of congressional Republicans. Through the use of the filibuster, the minority of Republicans in the Senate—without passing any new laws—could essentially have demolished labor law and made collective bargaining in this country nearly impossible.