By Aaron Welt
Even by historic standards, the past year has been a bad one for the American labor movement. High-profile political defeats in numerous state capitals, and organized labor’s failure to strongly influence the party that supposedly guards its interests (the Democrats) have illustrated that workers cannot rely on partisan political jockeying to achieve revitalization. A rare exception to labor’s woes came when the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) initiated legal action against the Boeing Corporation for allegedly punishing its local engineer and aerospace employee union by threatening to move production to right-to-work state South Carolina. The issue will be worked out in the courts over the coming months, but the case paints a clear picture of how partisan interest have usurped federal agencies and severely hampered their ability to properly enforce our laws.
Worker unions are protected from certain managerial actions under the National Labor Relations Act of 1934, including punitive decisions by employers designed to expunge employee representation at the workplace. The agency created to oversee New Deal worker protections, the NLRB has, like almost every other executive body, been stymied by the partisan interest during subsequent Democrat and Republican administrations. When the hyper-partisan Bush administration was at the helm, the NLRB consisted of three Republicans and two Democrats, consequently issuing a number of pro-business decisions, a strange trend for an agency designed to enforce laws protecting worker’s rights. The Obama administration has turned the tide back, with Democratic appointees. The legitimacy of this Board’s decision will be worked out in the courts, but it is clear that this back and forth between preceding Democrat and Republican administrations has tarnished the agency’s credibility as a fair arbiter in the crucial debates over labor policy. The stakes for the labor movement in reinvigorating the NLRB could not be higher, as it becomes increasingly obvious that the Democrats will give token gifts back to established labor leaders while taking the labor vote for granted, and will face a harsh backlash against the next Republican Administration, which will surely and callously have an ax to grind against unions once it is “their turn.”
Like so many federal agencies, the path to restored credibility will come when independents finally get a seat at the table. Only independents enjoy the freedom to make decisions free of political obligations and with judicial rationality, a necessity for any law-deciding body to maintain legitimacy in the eyes of voters. Therefore, for labor decisions to deserve good standing among the body politic, an independent must be appointed to the NLRB for their rulings to possess assured merit. Without independents on the Board, labor proceedings can only be a banal dance in which the major parties dole back gifts to the interests that put them into power. And as is the case in so many of the political dead ends and stalled reforms that make Washington a laughing stock for the rest of the country, it is independents that can push the political tide beyond partisan politics as usual.