When the Senate filibustered the nomination of Craig Becker to the National Labor Relations Board on Tuesday, it wasn't just a setback for President Obama or for what the Wall Street Journal editorial page likes to call "Big Labor." It was a slap in the face to the American middle class.
True, most Americans have no idea what the National Labor Relations Board is or what it does. But if we don't know we've been slapped, we feel the sting nonetheless.
We feel the sting when we realize that typical working families gained very little benefit from the boom years of the 2000s, even though corporate profits and incomes at the top soared. We feel it when we realize that the real wage for the typical American man was barely higher in 2007 than it was in 1973, despite big gains in workplace productivity that mean these workers were creating more value. We feel it when, as economists at the Economic Policy Institute observe "The American workforce is working harder, smarter, and more efficiently, yet failing to share fairly in the benefits of the growth they themselves are creating."
What does the National Labor Relations Board have to do with all this? Not everything: factors like increased international trade, technological change, and the shift to a service economy certainly played a role in the stagnating fortunes of working Americans. But by hindering employees' ability to organize unions -- the very activity it was established to promote -- and by failing to adapt workplace regulations to deal with a changing economy, the NLRB undermined the ability of working Americans to negotiate for their fair share of economic gains. In doing so, it undermined the nation's middle class. Craig Becker's nomination to the Board was supposed to be a step toward reversing the decline.
A little background: the NLRB was established in 1935 as part of the National Labor Relations Act. The Board was empowered to "make, amend, and rescind... rules and regulations" necessary to carry out the Act and its aim of protecting the right of employees to organize and bargain collectively.
It worked reasonably well for awhile. In the 1950s, more than a third of American workers held a union card. By negotiating for higher wages and better working conditions, unions transformed "bad" jobs on manufacturing assembly lines into today's "good" jobs, providing the economic mobility that enabled many working people to enjoy a middle-class standard of living. (There's no question that this broad prosperity continued to marginalize important segments of the workforce, and that any revitalization of the labor movement must be far more inclusive.)
But over the decades, and especially during the Bush years, the NLRB strayed from its mission of protecting workers' rights. The Board increasingly sided with employers, turning a blind eye to employers' anti-union threats and coercion, allowing employers to enact workplace policies that inhibit employees' established rights to freedom of association, and restricting the rights to nurses, temp workers, college instructors, and other broad groups of employees to even make a choice about union representation.
Illegal anti-union tactics by employers grew more pervasive as a result. Research by Cornell University professor Kate Bronfenbrenner reveals that today more than half of employers faced with a union organizing drive illegally threaten to close down their facility if the union wins, while one in three companies illegally fire workers for union activity. Employers regularly engage in surveillance, intimidation and harassment of employees trying to unionize. The NLRB's dereliction of duty means that supporting a union at work now poses workers with a significant risk of getting fired.
Today, unions still manage to bargain for the kind of wages and benefits that once characterized the American middle class, but the decades of anti-union policy by employers abetted by the NLRB mean they represent a shrinking proportion of the American workforce, now disproportionately in the public sector. That isn't enough to sustain the middle class, and as Harold Meyerson pointed out in the Washington Post, it soon won't be enough to fight for the broad public good on issues like universal health care and financial regulation.
Revitalizing the NLRB, and returning it to its original mission is a key step toward rebuilding the American middle class. Just because the Senate has slapped us across the face doesn't mean President Obama needs to follow suit. A recess appointment for Craig Becker would begin to heal the wound.