Michael Arria is a reporter who covers labor and social movements. He’s also the author of Medium Blue: The Politics of MSNBC.
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. It would be reasonable to expect that the head of the Labor Department and the National Labor Relations Board would be those who advocate for working Americans, people who will use the power of the Department and the National Labor Relations Board to rein in corporate greed and to improve the lives of ordinary working Americans. Well, while most of Washington and its legislators and its press have been preoccupied with Russiagate, some fundamental changes are taking place that can unravel labor conditions in this country for decades to come. Joining me now to take a closer look at who’s who in labor relations these days and in the Trump administration is Michael Arria. Michael is a reporter covering labor and social movements. He’s also the author of Medium Blue: The Politics of MSNBC. Thanks for joining us, Michael.
MICHAEL ARRIA: Sure, thanks for having me.
SHARMINI PERIES: So, Michael, before we dive into this topic, let’s outline what the Labor Relations Board is and what it does.
MICHAEL ARRIA: Sure. So, the NLRB is the National Labor Relations Board, was created in the 1930s, 1933, under FDR. It’s a five-person board which is responsible for interpreting and enforcing labor law in the United States. It’s had a variety of issues throughout the years, but I’d say in recent memory, it had become kind of a joke. Under George W. Bush, he had … George W. Bush, when president, had refused to appoint some people to open seats, and the Democrats controlled the Senate at the time, so they had refused to confirm some of his appointments. And for a large amount of time, I think from December 2007 through June of 2010, the five-member board only had two members on it, which led to questions regarding its authority, and ultimately a legal challenge. The Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that it … Not only did the two-member version of the board not have any authority, but also, none of the decisions it had made had any authority either.
So that was kind of the state of the NLRB not too long ago. It was not really regarded by many in labor as a beacon of hope, to put it mildly. But I think what we’ve seen, really, to the surprise of many, since Obama was able to fill out the remaining seats on the board, we’ve seen the NLRB kind of emerge as an effective interpreter of this kind of current economic landscape we’re in. We have seen them make all kinds of important decisions that kind of tilt some of the power back to workers. They … Very important decision that increased the organizing rights of graduate students, a very important decision that increased the organizing rights of employees at charter school.
And perhaps most importantly, in 2015, the Browning-Ferris ruling, which kind of chipped away at the legal barrier between a corporation and its given franchises. So when we look at movements like the Fight for $15, or the efforts to organize fast-food workers and retail workers, there’s been attempts by groups like the SEIU to kind of hold corporations like McDonald’s responsible for the actions of its given stores, and rulings like this, I think, have been a real breakthrough, and they’ve been, if unexpected, very welcomed by labor. And that might kind of sound like a long-winded backstory, but I think it’s necessary context to the In These Times piece I wrote, which is about the fact that the Trump administration is now poised to not only tilt the balance of power back to management on the board, but also potentially undo a lot of these important rulings that have taken place.
SHARMINI PERIES: Michael, honestly, last time I saw anything related to the Labor Relations in the mainstream media is when Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta was appointed, and some of the controversy around that. But media has really dropped the ball on protecting the interests of ordinary workers, but you have been a unique exception to that. Give us a sense of who’s getting appointed to the Labor Relations Board that concerns you.
MICHAEL ARRIA: Well, you’re definitely right to say that it hasn’t been covered. I’d say that the … When we look at the hearing which took place on July 13th, it took place just 10 days after, I believe, the Senate had gone back into session, and … The Senate session had begun just 10 days after the nomination of one of the nominees, and the other one just four days after, so there’s very little time to potentially research or vet these two nominations. It was kind of an unprecedentedly fast-tracked … In addition to the two people that were nominated to the NLRB board, the GOP also bundled in another nominee to the Labor Department in the same hearing, a guy named Patrick Pizzella, who probably deserves a hearing of his own. He worked with the disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff during the 1990s to try to get the North Mariana Islands exempt from labor law, kind of a very ugly story there.
But this was all kind of rushed. There was a letter sent to Lamar Alexander, who’s the head of the HELP Committee, who held the hearings, to ask him for an extension of time to take a closer look at these nominations, and that was not granted, so the entire process was kind of sped up. And the two nominees to the NLRB, the first one is a guy named William Emanuel, who’s a management-side attorney based in Los Angeles. He comes from a firm called Littler Mendelson, which has been notoriously connected to union-busting for decades. He authored an amicus brief on class action waivers; class action waivers have actually been deemed illegal by the NLRB. And when he was nominated, as is customary, he handed over a list of clients that he’d worked with that he said he would recuse himself from if they had cases come up in front of the NLRB, and the list is full of corporations which have clashed directly with the NLRB in recent years: J.P. Morgan, Nissan, probably most prominently Uber.
So that’s one of the nominees to the NLRB, and the other one is a guy named Marvin Kaplan, who served for the Republicans on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, which held hearings during his tenure scrutinizing many NLRB decisions, and he was also instrumental in developing a piece of legislation called the Workforce Democracy and Fairness Act, which is trying to increase the amount of time between when a board authorizes a workplace unionization vote and when that vote actually takes place. So, since 2014, that space of time has been 11 days, but many people, anti-labor forces are trying to extend that to at least 35 days so that management can have a little more time to potentially stomp out any organizing or attempts at creating a union. So that’s the history and backstory of the two people that were nominated. They both have long careers connected to anti-labor policies, I’d say.
SHARMINI PERIES: What kind of effect, or how will the dynamics change with existing members and these new appointments, as far as you can foresee?
MICHAEL ARRIA: Well, it’s difficult to say for sure. I think this is part of a much wider plan by the Trump administration to crack down on labor. I mean, you mentioned the new Labor Secretary earlier. It was just announced a couple days ago, I think, that he is moving ahead at undoing the overtime legislation that Obama passed shortly before leaving office that would potentially increase the pay of, I think, 4.2 million Americans. We see some of these OSHA rules have already been folded back, and we see the … Trump’s budget, which he had revealed, which calls for deep cuts to the Labor Department, and cuts to these work training programs.
So it’s hard to see how this shakes out, but this is kind of like the last piece, I think, to the Trump administration’s assault on labor, because up until this point, they have really not had control of the NLRB, and these … You know, we’re talking about how the process was kind of sped up, and there wasn’t much time. These nominees are expected to get confirmed, obviously, with the Republicans in control. The final vote in the committee was 12 to 11, down party lines, so everybody, I think, is expecting them to control this agency soon.
SHARMINI PERIES: And on the part of workers and ordinary citizens, families of working poor and so on, what can they actually do to protect their rights, especially if these nominations go through? I just don’t think people are aware and conscious of these changes that are taking place that can dramatically change their lives in the years to come.
MICHAEL ARRIA: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s different with every situation, but I actually … It’s interesting, I think, as the NLRB has kind of changed, and we’re talking about this story being under-reported, but I’m not sure if any of those Obama-era advancements were reported very much. There has been a few calls in various places for some in labor to focus a little more, maybe, on what’s referred to on the right sometimes as “judicial activism,” and maybe try to take some of what the NLRB does a little more seriously, and push for new types of enforcement of these rules.
So it’s going to be very interesting to see it play out, and I think it’s especially interesting because Trump has had a very … You know, on one hand, it’s easy to say that he’s leading this assault on labor; on the other hand, he courted labor during the campaign in a way that we really haven’t seen from a Republican since Ronald Reagan, and for all the talk about how he ran a campaign with no investment in polling and he really didn’t know what he was doing, I think that when we look at labor, it definitely paid off. I mean, he got more labor votes than Mitt Romney, or John McCain, or George W. Bush, or George W. Bush’s dad. So we’re looking at a kind of a … Like everything with the Trump administration, there’s kind of a huge gulf between the rhetoric and the actual policy, and we see a lot of focus on the rhetoric, but I think this is just one of the many examples where we see the policy kind of passing by without much comment or reporting.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Michael Arria, thank you so much for joining us today and giving us a snippet of what’s going on in the … As far as the Trump appointees and the changes that are taking place in the area of labor. Love to have you back to discuss more. Thanks so much.
MICHAEL ARRIA: Sure, thanks for having me.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining me here on The Real News Network.