Report: NLRB field staff shrank by one-third in last decade
These workers staged an unfair labor practice walkout. The NLRB is meant to protect workers who do this but was increasingly unable to do so during the trump years because he installed an anti-worker leadership at the agency which has been replaced by Biden. | Photo courtesy of SEIU

WASHINGTON—The field staff for the National Labor Relations Board—the workers who actually investigate and hold hearings on bosses’ labor law-breaking and run union recognition elections—shrank by one-third in the last decade and one-fifth during the recent reign of Trump-era NLRB General Counsel Peter Robb, a new non-partisan report says.

Not only that, but Robb sat on dollars lawmakers allotted to the agency to enforce the nation’s labor laws, and his actions—or inactions—resulted in plummeting staff numbers and worker morale at the board, the Government Accountability Office added.

The study, requested by two influential pro-worker lawmakers, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., paints a dismal picture at the agency since Robb became GC, its top administrator and top enforcement officer. On his first day as president, Democrat Joe Biden fired union and worker-hating Robb, who protested that breaks labor law.

Biden nominated veteran Communications Workers attorney Jennifer Abruzzo as GC. Meantime, Peter Sung Ohr, the agency’s activist Chicago regional director, is Acting GC.

The bad news at the NLRB is important for workers since the agency’s prime task is to enforce labor law—and bosses account for the overwhelming majority of labor law-breaking complaints the board handles. But with a one-third decline in field staffing since 2010, from 1,228 to 824, the NLRB doesn’t handle as many cases, the report says: A 22% decline.

The decimated field staff also manages union recognition elections, such as the one where board workers are now counting votes from up to 5,805 Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Ala., for or against the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union/UFCW.

“Declining staff numbers and recent policy changes have prompted concerns about how NLRB can accomplish its mission. Also, a federal survey indicates NLRB employees are increasingly dissatisfied,” says the report, available on the GAO’s website.

Murray and DeLauro blame Robb, given his key role at the NLRB. Their comments are important: The two chair the congressional Appropriations subcommittees that dole out the NLRB’s dollars. DeLauro also chairs the full House Appropriations Committee, and Murray also chairs the Senate Labor Committee, which writes labor laws and oversees the agency.

“It was clear long before” the GAO report that “Robb was unfit to manage a federal agency,” DeLauro said in a statement. GAO’s findings “illustrate how Robb decimated and demoralized the NLRB’s federal workforce while wasting taxpayer dollars and pursuing an ideological anti-worker agenda. He should have never been allowed to serve in this role. A good manager would have used the resources he allowed to expire to create a better work environment for existing staff and hire additional employees.”

“The NLRB is supposed to protect the right of workers to join together and collectively bargain for high wages, better benefits, and safer workplaces,” Murray said. “This report makes clear that under” former GOP Oval Office occupant Donald Trump, “the NLRB went out of their way to dismantle worker protections—allowing critical funds to go unused, shrinking and demoralizing staff, and pursuing an anti-worker agenda.

“Following the mess the last administration left us in, it’s critical we rebuild an NLRB that actually protects workers’ rights, not undermines them.”

Trump named Robb as GC in late 2017. Robb first won right-wing accolades when, as a young Justice Department lawyer, he drafted the 1981 memo which let GOP President Ronald Reagan fire all the unionized air traffic controllers. They were forced to strike over unsafe working conditions.

Reagan’s replacement of the 14,000 union controllers, members of PATCO, thanks to Robb’s memo, signaled to the nation’s corporate class that it was open season to destroy unions and degrade workers. The CEOs of the U.S. have been on the warpath ever since.

The NLRB’s mission is to judge boss-worker conflicts, but Robb’s memos made clear he wanted to move totally in the bosses’ direction. That demoralized the workers. So did staff shortages and the NLRB’s return of millions of unspent dollars—including $5 million in fiscal 2019—to the Treasury. While the GAO does not say so, Robb also determined to write anti-worker edicts into the stone of federal regulations, rather than deciding them case by case.

The staff saw all this coming. In 2017, their independent union led a one-time lunchtime walkout against their Trump-named bosses and Robb, stopping traffic at the downtown D.C. intersection where the board headquarters was then located.

“Data from the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey shows NLRB employees were increasingly dissatisfied with senior leaders’ policies, resource sufficiency, and their overall organization in recent years,” the GAO said. It noted the NLRB “ranked last out of all 17 medium-sized federal agencies in 2019” in staff satisfaction.

GAO issued six recommendations to clean up the mess Robb left at the NLRB. The top one says the board, which still has a Trump-named GOP majority, and the new GC “should develop objective and quantifiable performance measures, with associated target levels of performance, for…timeliness and quality for unfair labor practice and representation cases, and track and report results in the annual performance and accountability reports.”

The fifth recommendation says the board, the GC, the workers, and the union should collaborate to “ease pressure on personnel and make resource adjustments as necessary” to achieve that goal. That’s a fancy way of saying: “Don’t hoard your money. Spend it to hire more people.”


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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