Leading NLRB prosecutor seeks big change, faces uphill battle



National Labor Relations Board Chief Prosecutor Jennifer Abruzzo poses for a portrait at the National Labor Relations Board headquarters in Washington on Monday, June 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Amanda Andrade-Rhoades)


As workers in large corporations increasingly unionize, the labor policy environment could not be more mature.

Perhaps nowhere is this more accurate than at the National Labor Relations Board, the agency that enforces the nation’s labor laws and oversees union elections.

Over the past year, Biden-appointed chief prosecutor Jennifer Abruzzo has sought to overturn precedent and revive decades-old labor policies that supporters say would make it easier to form a union for the workers. To achieve his wish, Abruzzo must have the buy-in of the five-member board, whose Democratic majority is expected to favor the proposed changes. As for President Joe Biden, he has sworn to be “the most pro-union president” in American history.

“In the past, the focus has been on the rights or interests of employers. And I don’t believe that fits our mandate from Congress,” Abruzzo said in an interview with The Associated Press.

The changes Abruzzo is seeking come as workers at big corporations, including Starbucks, Amazon and, more recently, Apple, win union victories. But any changes to the agency’s enforcement of labor laws are likely to be reversed under a Republican administration and meet fierce resistance from employers in federal courts.

Currently, the agency is in the crosshairs of Amazon, which argued during an NLRB hearing that began last week that the union victory at one of its warehouses in Staten Island, New York, should be rejected. The e-commerce giant says union organizers and the agency acted in a way that tainted the vote. In one of its 25 objections, the company focuses on a lawsuit filed in March by the Brooklyn office of the NLRB seeking to reinstate a fired Amazon worker who was involved in the labor campaign.

Abruzzo said she would “aggressively” seek such remedies during her tenure, and may even pursue cases where an employer has only made threats against workers. The agency has repeatedly sued Starbucks in federal court since December, most recently on Tuesday when it asked a court to reinstate seven Buffalo, New York employees it says were unlawfully terminated for attempting to form a union. Abruzzo says she also asked field offices to be on the lookout for other threats to workers.

John Logan, director of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University, said some of the changes Abruzzo is seeking include policy changes that labor scholars have wanted for years.

“We have a general counsel ready to do things that haven’t been done in the past,” Logan said. “And also doing it in the context of a period of unionization that we haven’t seen in decades and decades.”

A career attorney for the NLRB for more than two decades, Abruzzo rose through the agency’s ranks to become deputy general counsel under former President Barack Obama. She briefly served as acting general counsel and left the agency during the Trump administration for a stint with Communications Workers of America, one of the largest unions in the United States. Last year, she was confirmed in her current role in the US Senate with party lines.

Arguably her most significant decision since then came in an NLRB case filed in April, where she asked the labor board to reinstate Joy Silk, an arcane legal doctrine that could radically change the way unions are formed. generally in the United States.

Joy Silk, which was abandoned nearly 50 years ago, would force companies to bargain with a union that secures majority worker support through permission cards rather than go through a protracted election process. Logan noted that Joy Silk essentially restricts employers’ ability to wage long anti-union campaigns in the run-up to an election, when unions tend to lose worker support.

An official move to Joy Silk is expected to be hotly contested by corporations and labor rights groups who want elections by private ballot. Some experts say elections better reflect what workers think of a union. And preparing for a vote usually gives companies time to argue with workers why they should reject unionization, which is legal as long as employers respect labor laws.

However, union activists and pro-union experts say some employers are using the time to push back against unionization by any means necessary, including mandatory meetings where they lay out all the reasons why workers should reject unionization.

Although the labor commission has allowed employers to mandate such meetings for decades, Abruzzo argued in an April memo that they were based on a misunderstanding of employers’ speech rights and should be banned. . It seeks to make meetings voluntary for workers.

Representative Virginia Foxx, Republican head of the House Education and Labor Committee, criticized the Abruzzo memo shortly after it was released, calling it “a hyperpartisan love letter to unions.”

“If the NLRB chooses to overturn decades of precedent and silence job creators, the consequences will be dire,” Foxx said in a statement at the time.

But field offices are following suit. About a month after Abruzzo’s memo was released, the NLRB’s Brooklyn office said it found merit in an allegation filed by the Amazon Labor Union that accused Amazon of violating labor laws in the workplace. one of its warehouses in Staten Island, New York, by holding mandatory meetings. to persuade workers to reject the union, adding even more rancor between the company and the agency.

Mark Nix, president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, said it’s hard to take Abruzzo’s quest for more workers’ rights seriously as she tries to overturn a ruling by Trump’s labor council which made it easier for employers to suspend negotiations on a future. contract when they know a union no longer has majority support.

Abruzzo signaled that it was one of many decisions she had intended to reverse since the Trump era, when matters were run by her predecessor Peter Robb, who was widely regarded by unions and Democrats as favoring employers. Biden then fired Robb.

“The hypocrisy is out of this world when you think about employee rights,” Nix said. “When she’s done her job, she should apply for the AFL-CIO lobbyist position, because she’s going even further than union officials even imagined.”

Experts say it’s too soon to know how successful Abruzzo might be in her efforts, as the changes she seeks are still progressing through the NLRB process. Logan, the labor expert, said she has been more aggressive than her Democratic-appointed predecessors, but still faces a daunting challenge as the changes she seeks are likely to be strongly contested.

“Unfortunately, that’s not going to help workers at the moment,” he said.

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