House Lawmakers Demand More Labor Board Funds As Workplace Organizing Spreads

With more workers at Amazon, Starbucks and elsewhere seeking union elections, Democrats are calling for a $94 million budget increase at the NLRB.

More than 140 members of Congress are calling on House leaders to end eight years of flat funding for the National Labor Relations Board, saying the agency isn’t equipped to handle a surge in workplace organizing at companies like Starbucks and Amazon.

In a letter to Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), chair of the House Committee on Appropriations, the 149 lawmakers warned that a “dramatic increase in labor activity” could swamp the underfunded board, which has lost roughly 30% of its staff since 2010 due to attrition and a lack of money. All but four of the members who signed are Democrats.

They called for a labor board budget of $368 million next fiscal year, a vast increase from the current level of $274 million, which hasn’t budged since 2014. The stagnant funding in recent years means the agency’s budget has gone down in real dollars.

A similar letter with the same $368 million proposal has been circulating in the Senate, led by Sens. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.).

The push comes as labor activists and board officials are raising alarm bells about the agency’s weakened state, fearing the lack of resources will make workers more vulnerable to union-busting.

“Rep. Donald Norcross, himself a union member, said the labor board had been ‘starved to death over the course of the last decade.’”

Rep. Donald Norcross, co-chair of the House Labor Caucus, spearheaded the letter to DeLauro and Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), the ranking Republican on the appropriations subcommittee that handles funding for labor agencies.

Norcross told HuffPost that the NLRB was being “starved to death over the course of the last decade,” and that workers trying to bargain collectively will ultimately pay the price.

“It’s been going on way too long,” said Norcross, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. “This year we must change it.”

The NLRB oversees private-sector union elections and referees disputes between labor groups and employers. The agency’s general counsel says election petitions have increased 57% so far in fiscal year 2022 compared to the previous year. It has also seen a 17% jump in “unfair labor practice” charges, or allegations of lawbreaking.

A sizable chunk of the swell in election petitions comes straight from Starbucks, where workers are waging one of the most notable organizing campaigns in decades. So far, 30 of the coffee chain’s stores have voted to unionize, and more than 200 overall have filed petitions to hold elections.

Workers at an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island that employs roughly 8,000 workers recently made history by forming the company’s first U.S. union. Meanwhile, workers at a separate facility nearby, numbering around 1,500, are voting this week on whether to join the Amazon Labor Union as well.

A push for more board funding could set up a fight with GOP members in both chambers, who seem to have drawn a red line on giving the agency any more money. The labor board has a statutory mission to promote collective bargaining, and many Republican members seem happy to let it wither.

The House Republicans who joined Democrats on the letter are Reps. Jeff Van Drew (N.J.), Chris Smith (N.J.), Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.) and Don Bacon (Neb.).

Christian Smalls, president of the Amazon Labor Union, speaks at a rally outside an Amazon facility on Staten Island on Sunday.
Christian Smalls, president of the Amazon Labor Union, speaks at a rally outside an Amazon facility on Staten Island on Sunday.
via Associated Press

Norcross acknowledged it would require more of Democrats’ political capital to boost funding.

“I don’t expect it to be easy,” he said. “If it was easy it would have been done [already].”

Since 2010, the number of full-time staffers at the NLRB has dropped from 1,733 to just 1,207. Most of the cuts have hit the regional offices that do the field work, such as investigating unfair labor practices, that’s necessary to enforce workers’ rights on the job. When adjusted for inflation, the agency estimates that its budget has been slashed by 25% since 2010.

Caseloads have dropped over the long term, but the agency’s staff has shrunk at a faster clip, and the size of the workforce the board regulates has grown significantly.

In a recent interview with HuffPost, NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo said she was worried the board would not be able to fulfill its statutory mission if the flat funding persisted much longer, since it would delay cases and harm workers trying to organize their workplaces.

“There’s [only] so much bandwidth we have,” Abruzzo said. “We have trouble just making sure that hearings are done in short order, that decisions are being issued in short order, that we’re investigating cases as quickly as we possibly can.”

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