March 5, 2021

Leaving Labor Board, Liebman Responds to Critics

Conservative newsletters describe the presidentially appointed board as “Marxism on the march” and its members as “socialist goons.” Business groups denounce it as a handmaiden of union bosses, while Representative Michele Bachmann, a Republican presidential candidate, says she will shut down the agency if elected.

And Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, vowed to cripple the board by blocking confirmation of any future Democratic nominees after the agency’s top lawyer sought to block a Boeing plant in his state.

All this has deeply troubled Wilma B. Liebman, who constantly defended the board in her position as its chairwoman — a post she gave up on Sunday when her term expired. In an interview last week, Ms. Liebman insisted that the agency was misunderstood.

“The criticism is grossly out of proportion to what has happened and what has been done,” said Ms. Liebman, who was first appointed to the board by President Bill Clinton in 1997. “We knew we were going to have a boxing match, but we didn’t expect our opponents to come in with a baseball bat.”

The board’s role is to enforce the National Labor Relations Act, a 76-year-old law that sets the rules for unionization efforts and collective bargaining in the private sector. But in practice, it has always moved with the political tides. With its five members appointed by the president, the board has alternately leaned toward helping or hindering unions, depending on which party controlled the majority of seats.

Ms. Liebman said that under the Obama administration, the Democratic-controlled board had reversed only a handful of rulings made by the Republican-controlled board appointed by President Bush.

“The perception of this agency as doing radical things is mystifying to me,” she said. “The rhetoric is so overheated.”

Ms. Liebman, 61, said she asked not to be reappointed and was ready to move on.

In her view, a major reason for all the venom is that many people have never accepted the National Labor Relations Act (or the New Deal when it was enacted), and its embrace of unions and collective bargaining.

She said numerous law firms, business associations and partisan groups were forever warning about how dangerous the N.L.R.B. was because that would help them attract clients or contributions. She said that as soon as President Obama was elected, such groups began sending out alarmist warnings about all the evil the “Obama board” would do.

But many business associations and conservative groups argue that the labor board has lurched well to the left. For example, the agency is pushing a major rule change that would speed up unionization elections, which would most likely make it harder for employers to fight unionization and easier for unions to win organizing drives. Critics were also quick to denounce an action that the board took last Thursday: for the first time, it ordered all private sector employers to post notices about their employees’ rights to unionize and bargain collectively.

Peter C. Schaumber, an appointee of President George W. Bush who served on the board for eight years, said, “There has always been a certain arc in the board’s decisions when control changes between parties. Certain cases would go back and forth, but what we’re seeing now goes well beyond that arc.”

Generally considered an independent agency, the board typically has five members, who are appointed by the president, although with Ms. Liebman’s departure, the board will be down to three members. On Saturday, the Obama administration announced that the president had designated a current member, Mark Pearce, as the new chairman.

After Craig Becker’s appointment expires in December, the board will shrink to two members. If Republicans follow through on their threat not to confirm any Democratic nominees, the board will be largely paralyzed because it cannot legally make decisions with just two members, a situation it endured for 26 months beginning in 2008 when both parties blocked each other’s nominees.

The agency also has a general counsel, who is appointed by the president and is independent of the five-member board. The general counsel acts as the agency’s chief prosecutor, responsible for bringing civil cases against employers and unions that violate the National Labor Relations Act.

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