Indicating that workers face a tough fight in Congress for labor law reform this year, Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., announced last night that he will help filibuster the president's nominee to the nation's most important labor relations agency.
The announcement, observers note, all but assures that confirmation won't happen.
Craig Becker, the president's nominee, has been an associate general counsel for the Service Employees International Union since 1990 and served, prior to that, in a similar role for the AFL-CIO.
His nomination had already been held up because of objections from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who said he was too close to the labor movement.
Labor leaders are even more furious with Nelson now than they had been during the health care debate when he blocked passage of a reform bill until the last minute when, after a promise that his state would not have to share in paying for increased Medicaid costs, he finally voted for a watered down measure.
"It is a shame and a disappointment that Sen. Nelson is willing to leave working families without a fully staffed National Labor relations Board," declared Eddie Vale, a spokesman for the AFL-CIO.
Nelson claimed that his opposition to Becker was motivated by the nominee's "previous statements" which, he said, "strongly indicate that he would take an aggressive personal agenda to the NLRB, and that he would pursue that personal agenda, rather than that of the administration."
He also said that Becker's statements "fly in the face of Nebraska's Right to Work (for less) laws, which have been credited with our excellent business climate that has attracted employers and very good jobs to Nebraska."
Union leaders reject any notion that Nelson is interested in protecting the Obama administration's agenda regarding labor relations, believing instead that he is responding to pressure from big business.
Speaking for the AFL-CIO, Vale said, "Becker is an eminently qualified nominee. It's pretty confusing and circular logic that Nelson contends he wouldn't represent the administration's agenda, when he was nominated twice by the administration."
Progressives across the board are particularly angry because Nelson, a Democrat, was much more supportive of nominations put forward by former President Bush than he has been of many parts of President Obama's agenda.
Nelson voted in favor of cloture when Bush nominated former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton and when he nominated former Environmental Protection Administration Administrator Stephen Johnson.
Nelson also voted with Republicans for the nominations of John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales to the Attorney general post and he voted with them in favor of Samuel Alito and John Roberts to the Supreme Court.
Progressives see the fight over Becker as part of the bigger fight between big business and labor over the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill in Congress that would make it easier for workers to win union representation.
Business groups claim Becker would help the NLRB make regulatory changes that would have the effect of bypassing Congress to implement the majority sign-up provisions of the EFCA.
Majority sign-up would allow workers to organize by signing authorization cards and would prevent management from blocking unionization by demanding so-called "secret ballot" elections.
Republican senators raked Becker over the coals in a rare hearing for an NLRB nominee last week.
The hearing by the Senate health, Education and Labor and Pensions Committee, was the first for an NLRB nominee since 1993 when Republicans grilled William Gould, President Clinton's pick for the labor relations post.
Several Republican senators claimed Becker would use his post to "ram through card check," the term used by EFCA opponents to describe majority sign-up.
Becker reminded them that it is the responsibility of Congress, not the NLRB, to write labor law.
McCain demanded to know whether Becker would pledge to recuse himself from any cases coming before the board that involved SEIU.
23 major business organizations sent the Senate a joint letter claiming that the NLRB would be able to "radically interpret existing labor law should Becker be confirmed."
Executives at 600 manufacturing companies signed a separate letter to senators urging them to oppose Becker's nomination.
Most Senate Democrats, however, backed the president's nominee.
Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said he didn't believe Becker's history would affect his objectivity.
"We don't confirm judges around here who are robots, or not human beings. We confirm people who are human beings and that have a point of view and know how to argue a point of view. I would hope that someone in your position would be someone like that."
Photo: Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson File/BR