Congress should boost NLRB funding to protect workers’ well-being

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) enforces the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the nation’s fundamental labor law that guarantees most private-sector workers the right to organize and the right to collective bargaining. Years of static funding has undermined the Board’s ability to fulfill its statutory mission, to the detriment of workers and the economy. The chronic under-resourcing of the Board has created challenges in its enforcement capacity amid the surge of union interest—and unfair labor practices. As Congress debates upcoming budget and spending legislation, it is critical that lawmakers boost NLRB funding to protect workers’ well-being.

NLRB funding has remained flat

The Board’s staffing level has not kept up with the growth in the national private-sector workforce. The number of full-time employees at the NLRB dropped by nearly 31% from 1,789 to 1,320 between 2006 and 2019. During the same period, the number of covered workers per NLRB staff increased by 50%, from one full-time employee per 74,809 workers to one full-time employee per 112,201 workers, as shown in the figure below. Further, staffing levels at regional offices, which typically handle the intake of complaints filed by workers, dropped by 33% between 2010 and 2019.

Figure A

The National Labor Relations Board is now responsible for far more workers than it was a decade ago: Number of private-sector workers per NLRB full-time employee, 2006–2019

Fiscal year Private-sector workers per NLRB full-time employee
2006 74809
2007 78292
2008 82804
2009 80784
2010 78321
2011 77076
2012 80303
2013 83888
2014 84853
2015 87896
2016 92969
2017 98064
2018 110790
2019 112201
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Source: EPI calculations from the National Labor Relations Board's data on full-time employees from 2006–2019 and Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (QCEW) data on the total number of employees covered by unemployment insurance programs in the United States from 2006–2019.

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These cuts have put a strain on the remaining staff, forcing them to stretch already-thin resources. According to the Government Accountability Office, only about one-third of employees agree that the Board has sufficient resources, while nearly half admit to having an unreasonable workload. Although Congress has mandated the Board to address this understaffing, it has failed to allocate adequate resources to do so and has instead allowed funding to remain flat since 2014. Congress’s continued reliance on continuing resolutions in place of annual appropriations prevents the Board from backfilling staffing needs that predate the previous fiscal year. Further, funding levels have not kept up with inflation in the last decade, which translates to an effective 20% funding cut.

NLRB officials associate this decline in staffing with a decrease in case numbers; this decline in cases has been further attributed to “a hostile environment for organizing unions and filing unfair labor practice charges” created by the previous administration. In sharp contrast, the Biden administration has publicly supported collective bargaining efforts and touted the benefits of unions.  

Collective action is crucial and must be protected

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the NLRB’s mandate of protecting workers’ fundamental right to collective action is as important as ever. We have seen a surge in protests by workers fighting for basic rights, better working conditions, personal protective equipment, and better pay. Where workers have been able to act collectively and through their union, they have been able to secure enhanced safety measures, additional premium pay, and paid sick time.

Workers are recognizing the critical role that unions play in securing workplace rights, and they are banding together to establish unions in major employers like Starbucks and Amazon as well as independent bookstores and college campuses. NLRB petitions for union elections have shot up by more than 30% so far in 2022. This, in turn, requires the Board to allocate more resources toward addressing these petitions and ensuring fair and timely representation proceedings.

Still, there is a significant mismatch in the number of workers who want to join unions and those who are represented by one. A recent survey showed that a large and growing number of workers want union representation, with nearly 50% of workers polled saying they would vote to create a union in their workplace tomorrow if they could. However, the share of workers represented by unions has declined.

The decline in union membership comes amid sustained attacks on unionization efforts. Our research has shown that employers are charged with violating federal law in 41.5% of all union election campaigns, and one out of five union election campaigns involves a charge that a worker was illegally fired for union activity. Consequently, union elections today are characterized by employer intimidation and in no way reflect the democratic process guaranteed by the National Labor Relations Act.

For example, Starbucks organizers have accused the company of retaliation by firing workers for their unionization efforts, and Amazon unlawfully interfered in a union vote in its Bessemer, Alabama warehouse. In both instances, the NLRB played a critical role in protecting workers’ rights to collective action and in identifying employees’ unlawful actions. However, many employers continue to pursue creative and heavy-handed tactics—both legal and illegal—to threaten and intimidate their workers in the hopes of stopping them from exercising their right to collective bargaining. More robust funding will be needed to remedy these attacks on the NLRA, combat illegal and unfair workplace practices, and strengthen the NLRB’s investigative and enforcement abilities.

Despite challenges, the NLRB continues to deliver results

Despite limited resources, NLRB staff have worked to improve performance and deliver results. In 2021, the Board recovered $56 million—or 44% more than the previous year—on behalf of workers whose rights were violated, and worked to increase reinstatement offers by 545%. The NLRB also reduced the median age of pending cases by 15%.

In order to build on this momentum and continue to protect the nation’s fundamental labor law, it is critical that Congress allocate adequate resources to the NLRB. Congress must move beyond flat funding for the Board, which has undermined its enforcement capabilities. Instead, the Board requires greater funding in order to meet the challenges and complexities of today’s workforce.