The White House said Wednesday that President Joe Biden plans to nominate union lawyer Gwynne Wilcox to a seat on the National Labor Relations Board, the federal body that shapes collective bargaining policy in the private sector.
The five-member board currently has a 3-1 Republican majority held over from the Trump years, with Wilcox nominated for the one vacant seat. If she is confirmed by the Senate, the board would have a 3-2 Republican majority, with a chance for Biden to flip control to Democrats once the next seat comes open in August.
A relatively obscure agency to most Americans, the NLRB plays a central role in labor relations, refereeing disputes between unions and employers and determining whether certain workers are eligible to unionize. Although the agency is independent from the White House, the president gets to make nominations to the NLRB that can dramatically change how the law is interpreted.
Biden infuriated Republicans when he fired the board’s former general counsel, Trump appointee Peter Robb, as one of his very first moves in office. The general counsel acts as a kind of prosecutor, bringing cases against employers or unions that may have broken the law. The separate five-member board acts as a kind of high court for labor law, handing down decisions that can set or overturn precedents.
The employer-friendly policies created by Trump appointees to the agency are already giving way to more worker-friendly policies put in motion by the Biden administration. If Wilcox is confirmed and Biden succeeds in flipping control of the board later this year, the board could take up cases that would essentially reverse earlier interpretations from the GOP majority.
Biden has cast himself as “the most pro-union president,” and has already made some moves that could burnish his claim. In addition to firing Robb, he waded into the Amazon union election in Alabama, delivering an unprecedented pro-union speech amid a high-profile organizing drive. Unions fully expect him to reshape the five-member board to promote collective bargaining.
The next vacancy to the board arrives at the end of August, when the term of Trump appointee William Emanuel expires. Democrats hold a bare majority in the 50-50 Senate, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote, leaving them no room for error in getting Biden’s nominees confirmed.
The Wilcox nomination was quickly cheered by union advocates who believe the current board has been too hostile to unions and workers. The United Food and Commercial Workers union said the move “sends a clear message that this White House is committed to creating a level playing field for American workers.”
Wilcox is a partner at the union-side law firm Levy Ratner, and serves as associate general counsel for 1199SEIU, a powerful New York-based union local of the Service Employees International Union. She previously worked as an NLRB field attorney in New York.
Union-side attorney Brandon Magner noted on Twitter that Wilcox would be the first Black woman to serve in an NLRB role that required Senate confirmation.