Membership in the United Auto Workers has declined dramatically these past few decades. But its officials at last may have found a way to recapture the glory days: Team up with the Germans. Last month, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., alleged that an activist board member of Volkswagen Group forced the Wolfsburg, Germany-based automaker to disclose that it was negotiating with the UAW to unionize its Chattanooga assembly plant. This factory, like other foreign-owned plants in the South, is nonunion. The powerful German union, IG Metall, and VW management are backing the UAW's campaign to change that. The UAW recently announced that a majority of workers there had signed cards indicating their desire to join.
A foreign power, in theory, has no authority to dictate another nation's domestic policy. But don't remind the National Labor Relations Board. Late in July the NLRB and Mexico's Foreign Ministry signed a letter of cooperative agreement to promote the rights of Mexican workers on U.S. soil, regardless of their legal status. The pact commits the board to work with Mexican consulates in notifying that country's workers in the U.S. of their rights and to investigate employer violations of labor law against their workers here.
The National Labor Relations Board now will have something it hasn't had in a decade: five full-term members. Just one hour ago, the full Senate approved all five nominees to the board following a deal two weeks ago to break a logjam over two recess appointments. And it's Republicans who appear to have been taken. On July 16, President Obama had named Democrats Nancy Schiffer and Kent Hirozawa to slots vacated by Sharon Block and Richard Griffin, the result of a federal appeals court ruling this past January. Schiffer until last year served as AFL-CIO associate general counsel; Hirozawa is chief counsel to current NLRB Chairman Mark Pearce.
The National Labor Relations Board, strictly speaking, should have shut down nearly five months ago. But it has kept on going anyway. And even if President Obama's slate of five nominees takes office, the issues surrounding its legal limbo almost certainly will continue onward to the Supreme Court. On May 22, the Senate Labor Committee approved all five and sent their names in one package for a full floor Senate vote. In February the president had re-nominated two members, Sharon Block and Richard Griffin, both of whose recess appointments were declared unconstitutional on January 25 by a federal appeals court.
When is a union not a union? Apparently, it's when members say it isn't. Yet a change in terminology can't alter reality. Over the past several years, hundreds of organizations, known as ‘worker centers,' have established a presence in the labor movement, targeting retail and restaurant chains for organizing and picketing. While they don't like being called unions, for all practical purposes they operate as such. And they have the advantage of being outside the jurisdiction of labor law. At least one is a reconstituted key affiliate of the defunct radical network, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN).
The National Labor Relations Board may be inoperative at present. Yet one of its rulings last month, unless undone, will curtail a longstanding right of employers and individual workers. On December 12, in WKYC-TV Inc., the NLRB ruled 3-1 that an employer must continue to collect dues from union members via automatic "checkoff" even after the collective bargaining agreement expires. The ruling effectively overturns the board's Bethlehem Steel decision of 1962, which ruled against forced dues check-offs following contract expiration. It's another case of President Obama's appointees to the normally five-member body favoring forced unionism.
When is a presidential recess appointment less than an appointment? It would seem when Congress isn't in recess. This Friday morning, January 25, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia unanimously invalidated President Obama's three appointments - Sharon Block, Richard Griffin and Terence Flynn - to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) of January 4, 2012. The Obama administration is expected to appeal the case, known as Noel Canning v. NLRB, to the U.S. Supreme Court. As Flynn stepped down last summer and another member left in December, the normally five-member NLRB now has only one legitimate member, Mark Pearce.
The National Labor Relations Board ought to be about the last place to find anyone with a history of union corruption. But Richard Griffin (see photo), an NLRB member and former general counsel for the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE), may be the exception. Griffin last October was named as a defendant in a federal racketeering suit filed by 10 members of IUOE Local 501 in Los Angeles. The complaint alleges Griffin, during his tenure representing the international union, was complicit in a "scheme to defraud [the local] out of revenue, cost savings and membership." Dozens of union members, the suit charges, engaged in kickbacks, bribery, threats and extortion.
The increasing overlap of labor and political activism is an insidious form of public corruption in this country. It enables union officials to deemphasize their role of representing workers at the bargaining table in favor of advocating policies to socialize the economy, building incestuous relationships with politicians, and fattening their bank accounts. This tendency was heavily felt in 2012, a presidential election year. Union leaders recognized the need to re-elect their ally and benefactor, President Barack Obama, over someone who was a wealthy Republican with a strong business background; i.e., someone they truly could despise. They got what they wanted. In the process, they further built a political infrastructure. Yet union leaders also experienced reversals of fortune at the state level - most of all, in Michigan - where they had been used to getting their way.
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), normally with five members, now has three. And not long from now, it may have just one. President Obama's apparent desire to circumvent Senate intent is part of the problem. On Wednesday, December 5, a three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit heard oral arguments in a case concerning Obama's filling of three vacant NLRB slots nearly a year ago. The case, Noel Canning v. NLRB, originated in a complaint filed by a Washington State business that the president had usurped the Senate's constitutional powers of appointment because lawmakers were not in recess. And since these were not actual recess appointments, the president lacked the authority to make them. The eventual outcome will have implications for the board's ability to operate over the long term.