Politicizing the NLRB

Chairman Wilma Liebman of the National Labor Relations Board has been drawing more attention to her activities in recent months, with the NLRB’s Office of Public Affairs sending out news releases about case decisions and her views on issues.

The latest is a news release about a speech Liebman gave at Washington University Law School in St. Louis, “NLRB Chairman Wilma Liebman discusses state of American labor law.” (Fixed link.) Notable are these paragraphs:

Liebman noted that labor laws have provided access to economic justice at the workplace, contributed to the expansion of the American middle class and allowed labor and business to reach their own solutions in response to changing economic conditions. “Labor law still matters,” she said, although “the collective bargaining system and the legal institutions that support it are under severe stress.”

“Sober public dialogue is sorely needed if we are to figure out how to allow, indeed encourage, business to be flexible and competitive, yet also ensure workers the protections and promise of the law,” Liebman continued. “In other words, how are we to achieve the necessary delicate balance between market freedom and democratic values? What road we take in addressing these issues will depend on what kind of society we want to be.”

Our emphases.

The term “economic justice” is commonly used by those who believe in government-promoted redistribution of wealth. Organized labor favors the term, as you can see by searching the AFL-CIO website. The SEIU issued an entire report dedicated to “Social and Economic Justice” in 2004.

Liebman also sees it as a worthwhile goal to “achieve the necessary delicate balance between market freedom and democratic values,” thereby expressing the political view that the two are at odds and should be balanced. We contend that market freedoms and democratic values reinforce one another.

These are all familiar discussions in the political sphere and in policy disputes. But the NLRB is a quasi-judicial agency, “deciding cases based on formal records and hearings.” Board members perform an appellate function by ruling on disputes between employers and employees, business and organized labor. By weighing in on the side of labor — and the highlighted remarks implicitly do so — Liebman casts doubt on her ability to be a disinterested referee.

Liebman’s efforts for a higher profile are a relatively new phenomenon. Last October, the NLRB issued a news release, “New NLRB Office of Public Affairs to increase public engagement,” announcing a new head of the office, a former newspaper reporter and communications person at the union-supported Economic Policy Institute. Perhaps it’s a case of new people, new energy, new advocacy. I Twitter, therefore I am.

One could also speculate about a behavior common to executive branch agencies and multi-member boards when the balance of power shifts. Liebman has served on the NLRB since 1997, and President Obama designated her chairman when assumed office on Jan. 20, 2009. It’s now a two-member board, with the other member being the Republican, Peter Schaumber. Two new board members are still awaiting Senate confirmation, Mark Pearce, a Democrat, and Brian Hayes, a Republican, and it’s conceivable that the President will still recess appoint Craig Becker, previously blocked in a failed cloture vote. Once they come on board, the President can designate one of them a new chairman, that is, picking his own person. Chairmen have been known to lobby to keep their jobs in such circumstances. But a political PR campaign does damage to the NLRB’s reputation and ability to perform the judicial function it was created for.

Join the discussion 4 Comments

Leave a Reply