NLRB History

Anyone teaching administrative law will probably be reviewing several cases involving the National Labor Relations Board. In an era of declining unionism, the agency can seem like a bit of a relic. On the other hand, the rising tide of worker actions at fast food and retail giants suggests its basic premise—workplace democracy—may be needed now more than ever. Unfortunately, two presidential moves particularly eroded the agency’s ability to adjudicate disputes neutrally:

Congress presumed that all of the NLRB members should represent neither labor nor management, but rather the public. But in 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower, the first Republican president to make NLRB appointments, broke the non-partisan pattern and appointed three Republican lawyers with management backgrounds and two non-partisans. That created what later administrations understood as a “tradition” of three appointments from the president’s party and two from other backgrounds (eventually defined as from the opposing party). . . . Meanwhile, the National Association of Manufacturers, a big business group, pursued a policy of undermining the Wagner Act by promoting appointees who did not fully support the law’s goals, a strategy that Ronald Reagan escalated dramatically in 1981 by appointing prominent opponents of unionization to the NLRB, including the office of chairman.

Reagan signaled a new Republican strategy on labor. . . . As Cleveland State University law school professor Joan Flynn noted in a 2000 article in the Ohio State Law Journal, NLRB votes became more sharply divided along lines of class and ideology after Reagan named blatantly anti-union appointees to the board.

Given this history, and hardening GOP stances, it’s no wonder that the “A.F.L.-C.I.O. has set up a dozen committees — of historians, young workers, Web experts, pollsters — to propose ways to reinvent labor.”

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