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President Obama has designated Wilma B. Liebman as the Chairman of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). As an ardent supporter of unions and a vocal critic of right to work laws and recent NLRB decisions promoting an employee’s ability to reject unionization, Liebman will surely take the NLRB in a new direction – and one that is not necessarily favorable to employers.
First appointed by former President Clinton, Liebman has served on the Board since November 14, 1997. Prior to joining the NLRB, Liebman worked at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service as Special Assistant to the Director and then as Deputy Director. In addition, Liebman has worked as a lawyer for the NLRB, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftsman. She is also an elected member of the Executive Board of the Industrial Relations Research Association and of the College of Labor and Employment Lawyers, Inc.
In testimony before the House Committee on Education and Labor, and in an article published in the Working USA: Journal of Labor and Society, Liebman takes issue with the NLRB’s focus on protecting an employee’s right to decline union representation over the promotion of collective bargaining. In the abstract to her article: Labor Law Inside Out, Liebman writes:
Today, some sixty years after passage of the Taft-Hartley amendments to the National Labor Relations Act, it seems that the centerpiece of the Act has become the right to refrain from protected, concerted or union activity. The original 1935 legislation was enacted, of course, to protect the right to engage in that activity, and to encourage the practice of collective bargaining. For nearly sixty years after Taft-Hartley added the right to refrain to Section 7's employee protections, the Board has struggled to reconcile the sometimes competing statutory goals of promoting the stability of collective bargaining relationships and the individual freedom of choice, preserved by Section 7. That has changed, however, as the National Labor Relations Board, in several recent decisions, has said for the first time, that freedom of choice - which is to say, the freedom to reject union representation - prevails in the statutory scheme. It is as if the law, in abandoning the primacy of achieving economic justice through collective action, has been turned inside out. The stakes for this shift in policy are great.
In essence, Liebman bemoans the fact that the NLRB has focused its efforts on preserving an employee’s freedom of choice. This theme continues in the last page of her article, where Liebman emphasizes that:
[A]n exclusive orientation toward an individual-rights regime could have troubling political and social consequences. Workers may view the employment relationship in purely individual terms and may fail to grasp common economic interests and the potential of collective action at work, as well as in the public sphere. Collective action at work encourages engagement in the community and in politics. Without a functioning collective bargaining system, fundamental economic issues are placed off the table: distribution of wealth, control, and direction of economic enterprises. What institution will be as effective in efforts to minimize the randomness of fortune of democratic capitalism? And without a strong independent trade union movement, what institution will stand effectively as a counterweight in our democracy to the growing political influence of corporations? What institution will speak for working people—indeed for the middle class—as effectively?
It is evident by this passage that Liebman views with disdain the “political influence” of the business community. As Chairman of the NLRB, it can be reasonably expected that she will direct the Board’s energies to enforcing labor laws, promoting collective bargaining, and issuing rulings that effectively overturn a number of Bush-era NLRB rulings that organized labor and some Democratic Senators are determined to reverse. Moreover, if the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) is ever enacted, the NLRB will have the regulatory opportunity to shape how the new law will operate in practice in a way that is favorable to organized labor. As a proponent of unions, Liebman will surely do just that if given the opportunity.