Ronald Reagan reaches out from his grave, ties up National Labor Relations Board

The “Gipper” apparently knew what he was doing when he stacked the federal courts with young right-wing lawyers back in the 1980s. The now old right-wing judges are still on their benches and are busy, these days, doing whatever they can to slow the advance of the labor and progressive movements.

The National Labor Relations Board has put a freeze on consideration of all contested cases because of a recent ruling by a right-wing federal judge who was one of the many appointed by President Ronald Reagan..

Judge David Sentelle of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled May 1 in favor of a company that challenged a board ruling that it had violated numerous labor laws. Sentelle, appointed to the bench in 1987 by Ronald Reagan, has a long history of making anti-worker and even unethical decisions.

To understand how he was able to throw a wrench into the entire NLRB operation and endanger numerous efforts by workers fighting for rights on the job, it is helpful to review a bit of history.

The five-member NLRB has, since Dec. 31, 2007, had only two sitting members, Democrat Wilma Liebman and Republican Peter Schaumber, and three vacancies. Before the last two left the board at the end of 2007, the then group of four decided to delegate NLRB’s authority to a panel of three. Even if the third member was a phantom, in cases where Liebman and Schaumber agreed on a solution there would be a quorum of two. Since then, the two have agreed upon and decided 300 cases, all 2-0.

Appellate Judge Joel Flaum in Chicago said the 2-0 rulings are legal when he upheld the Liebman-Schaumber ruling that New Process Steel, an Indiana steel maker, violated labor law by not accepting a signed contract with the Machinists.

Judge Sentelle in Washington, D.C., however, said the 2-0 rulings are illegal when, on the same day, he threw out the Liebman-Schaumber 2-0 ruling that Laurel Baye Healthcare violated labor law in a dispute with the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1996.

Sentelle also ruled that all 300 past cases decided by that margin should be put on hold and decided all over again, once the NLRB has a quorum.

David Parker, a top assistant to Liebman, said the NLRB “is considering all its legal options.” These include requesting that the full D.C. court, within 45 days, re-hear the case that Sentelle ruled on. “Meanwhile, Liebman and Schaumber are not going to issue any rulings on contested cases,” Parker said.

The delay has the potential to cause serious problems because, except for airlines and railroads, the NLRB oversees labor-management relations, determines whether unions can seek recognition elections at worksites, decides which jobs are covered in potential bargaining units, and whether unions can be ousted as the result of particular decertification efforts.

The board also rules on whether a particular class of workers may or may not be covered by labor law, therefore having the right to organize.

Judge Sentelle has a long judicial record in service of right wing causes. He backed elimination of habeus corpus for prisoners at Guantanamo and he ruled against freedom of the press by insisting journalists must reveal sources upon court demand. As a sitting judge he met with and schemed with Republican senators to help get Kenneth Starr appointed as special prosecutor in the Whitewater case during the Clinton administration.

jwojcik @ pww.org