WASHINGTON — Facing a crucial summer, union leaders are increasingly concerned that the Democratic leadership in Congress is not prioritizing critical confirmation from the National Labor Relations Board, the body tasked with ensuring fair labor practices and workplace democracy.
With Hollywood on strike and UPS workers potentially joining them, three union leaders told NBC News that Democrats lack urgency to push President Joe Biden’s nomination of Gwynne Wilcox, the first and only black woman to serve on the NLRB since its inception in 1935, for a second term.
“We are frustrated by the lack of action from the Senate, a Democratic majority, since Biden took office to move these critically important nominations that impact workers,” Matthew Biggs, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers union, told NBC News on Thursday. «We want Wilcox to move and move before the break.»
Wilcox’s term expires in August and the NLRB has already lost one member, after its chairman, Trump-nominee John F. Ring, left in December at the end of his term. And the Senate has just four business days left in Washington before a long August recess.
If the board is reduced to three out of five members, union leaders said, it would be prevented from implementing worker advancement policies.
“More or less, it means that whatever precedent there is, whatever ruling there is, it all freezes,” said Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union. “It is in the interest of the workers, and certainly in the interest of the unions that the workers have, to have a functioning board with good, strong, pro-worker advocates. The NLRB is supposed to make organizing workers easier, not harder.”
To prevent Wilcox’s term from expiring, the Senate would have to confirm his nomination by the end of July, an assurance Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., gave to union leaders and relevant Senate aides several weeks ago, according to several people directly involved in the talks.
“Sen. Schumer is committed to working to confirm as many nominees as possible,» a Schumer spokesperson said. «Gwynne Wilcox is clearly important and we will confirm her soon.»
The spokesman also questioned whether a commitment of any kind has been made for Wilcox to be confirmed before the August break.
Wilcox was confirmed for her first term in 2021 largely along party lines. Earlier this month, she was successfully reported out of committee with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, offering the only Republican vote to promote her. Vulnerable Democrats seeking re-election in 2024 are being pressured to oppose it, prompting a potentially contentious confirmation vote on the full Senate.
Wilcox’s term ends August 27. If it’s not confirmed by then, Biggs said it will “certainly” have a negative impact on unions’ ability to protect workers; the Senate is not scheduled to return to Washington until September 5. “If Wilcox is not confirmed, it will certainly have a negative impact on the ability of workers to have their rights protected … because the NLRB for all intents and purposes will not be able to operate in the way that it normally would,” Biggs said.
“Where do the workers turn?” she added. “And the most frustrating thing is that the Senate is controlled by the Democrats. And they’re supposed to make it a priority.»
In addition to the NLRB, which deals exclusively with the private sector, Biggs also raised concerns about the three-member Federal Labor Relations Authority, the agency that governs labor relations between the federal government and its employees.
The FLRA is currently operating with just two board members, one a holdover from the Trump administration, the other a Biden appointee. The 1-1 split means the status quo is largely preserved, and no new rulings are likely.
The board found itself in the spotlight under then-President Donald Trump when decertified a union of federal immigration judges in 2020. The Biden administration moved to restore union rights to the National Association of Immigration Judges the following year, but the Senate had yet to confirm Biden’s nominees for the board when the FLRA’s Trump-appointed majority voted in January 2022 to once again block union certification of the NAIJ.
«Yeah [the nominees were confirmed] in 2021, we would not have this problem. Immigration judges would still have their union and we wouldn’t be in the situation we’re in right now,” Biggs said.
A hearing has yet to be formally scheduled in the Senate Homeland Security Committee to consider Nancy Speight, Biden’s nominee for the third seat on the board, whom he nominated last month. “The Senate just received this nomination in June,” a committee spokesman said. «We started the process and hope to have a hearing this fall.»
“Everyone should have a stake in making sure these positions are filled,” Biggs added. “These positions impact all workers in the country.”