Now that the Senate has confirmed the appointments of a full slate of members of the National Labor Relations Board (the quasi-judicial body that decides labor relations cases and protects the right of workers to organize unions), the 18-month long fight over the president’s nominations looks ridiculous. Despite precipitating a mini constitutional crisis over the president’s right to make recess appointments, and coming close to the parliamentary equivalent of nuclear war in the Senate, the end result is little different than if the Senate had simply confirmed President Obama’s original nominees. On the other hand, a lot of damage has been done along the way.
For those who haven’t followed closely, Senate Republicans filibustered the nominations of two Democrats, Sharon Block and Richard Griffin, who strongly support the National Labor Relations Act’s mission of encouraging collective bargaining. They were targeted because Republicans sought to demonize the Board and President Obama over a case involving Boeing’s decision to open new facilities in South Carolina. In that case, the NLRB filed a complaint against Boeing because company officials had described the decision to locate the plant in South Carolina as punishment for the Machinists union’s exercise of its legally protected right to strike. Even though no Board member ever ruled on the case, which Boeing and its union eventually settled, Sen. Lindsay Graham and others made it a cause celebre and fabricated an election campaign story that President Obama was trying to prevent investment in right-to-work states like South Carolina. Sen. Graham even suggested that the NLRB should be put out of business.
Block and Griffin were also targeted because they received constitutionally questionable recess appointments in January 2012. At their confirmation hearing in the Senate, they were unfairly vilified for having accepted their appointments and served on the Board, as the President of the United States asked them to.
So Democrats threatened to do away with filibusters for presidential appointees, and the Republicans finally agreed to allow a confirmation vote—on anyone other than Block and Griffin. President Obama quickly nominated two Democrats with outstanding careers as labor lawyers representing unions and workers, Kent Hirozawa and Nancy Schiffer. The end result is that two highly qualified lawyers who believe in unions and collective bargaining have been replaced by two highly qualified lawyers who believe in unions and collective bargaining. The National Labor Relations Act will be enforced, cases will be heard, and the right to collective action to improve wages and working conditions will be protected.
But along the way, hundreds of cases decided by Block and Griffin over the 18 months they served under a constitutional cloud have been appealed to the courts and left in limbo. This has delayed justice and left hundreds of workers fired for trying to form a union without a paycheck or a remedy. It has wasted millions of dollars in legal fees that could have been spent on higher wages or investments in equipment. And it has wasted months of time in the House and Senate on debates and hearings and speeches that seemed to be about Sharon Block and Richard Griffin’s nominations but were really about throwing dirt in the gears of government and keeping the NLRB from protecting the right to form unions and bargain for higher wages.