WASHINGTON -- In the past three years, Marcus Hedger has lost a good-paying manufacturing job and a nice home in Antioch, Ill. Thanks to the dysfunction on Capitol Hill, there's no telling when he'll get either of them back.
Hedger, 56, worked as a pressman at a label-making plant run by the Fort Dearborn Company in Niles, Ill. In 2010, he was fired from his job. According to a federal judge, plant management illegally discriminated against Hedger in the firing because of his standing as a shop steward with the Teamsters union during a contract battle. The ruling entitled Hedger to backpay and reinstatement on the job.
Unfortunately for Hedger, his case went before the GOP pincushion that is the National Labor Relations Board, the quasi-judicial federal agency that enforces labor law. His favorable ruling -- first issued by an administrative law judge in 2011, then affirmed by the labor board itself in 2012 -- is currently tied up in the appeals process and could be tossed out amidst a legal and political fight over the board's legitimacy.
"It's two political factions fighting each other. That's fine when it's an election, but the election is over," Hedger told The Huffington Post. "It's time for both sides to get together and do the right thing for people like me who are waiting on line. Nothing can go forward until they do what's right for the people who elected them. And it's a lot more than just the labor board being held up."
President Barack Obama's recess appointments to the board, which he made to circumvent a likely Republican block against his nominees, were declared invalid by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in January. Scores of cases, including Hedger's, now face an uncertain future, with the Supreme Court likely to take up the appeals decision. It's possible that more than a year's worth of work by the board could be thrown out.
To make matters worse, the board faces the possibility of a shutdown by late summer. The five-member board now has only three sitting members, the bare minimum for a functioning quorum, and the term for the board's chairman, Mark Pearce, expires in August. If Senate Republicans choose to filibuster the president's nominees -- not an unlikely scenario, given their hostility toward the board's rulings under Obama -- the board will drop to two members and be unable to issue rulings.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a staunch critic of NLRB over the past two years, has said that an "inoperable" board could be considered "progress."
Hedger disagrees. While his case has been pending, he lost his home.
Hedger earned roughly $70,000 annually in his job as a pressman. He ran into financial troubles and fell behind on his house payments in 2010, after losing some of his hours at work, he said. According to court records, he declared chapter 7 bankruptcy early that year, right around the time his bank first filed a foreclosure complaint against him. Hedger said he wanted to clear some of his debts in order to make good on his mortgage. But he was fired in September 2010, which made saving the house impossible, he said. The foreclosure was finalized last year.
Hedger was fired for allegedly escorting a non-employee through the plant against company rules. The guest was a friend of Hedger's from another company, and Hedger insists he got permission from a supervisor to walk him through the facility. The judge and the labor board both determined that the incident was merely a pretext for firing a union official. Hedger and his colleagues had recently opposed a new contract proposal from the company.
A Fort Dearborn spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
After he lost his job, Hedger spent a year on unemployment. He eventually found a job with another press, but at about a third of the salary he'd been making. He and his wife now live in an apartment. Her earnings working in a school cafeteria used to be supplemental income, but now they're necessary to cover food and utilities.
"It's difficult for my wife to hold her head up the way she used to," Hedger said. "I had a very good life. I thought I'd accomplished my American dream. I had a nice house and nice car and good job and all that. And overnight everything changed."
Part of the mission of the labor board is to protect workers who've been discriminated or retaliated against under the National Labor Relations Act, the Depression-era law that enshrines collective bargaining. Even when the board is properly functioning, it can take years to resolve cases. But given the current limbo, delays will likely become even longer, leaving workers like Hedger without remedy.
"The labor board is supposed to be there for labor and employers," Hedger said. "They've done their job, but they can't enforce anything right now."
The labor board has teetered on the brink of a shutdown repeatedly in recent years, as the Senate has made it more and more difficult to clear the nominations process. Both Democratic and Republican administrations, in turn, have relied increasingly on recess appointments to keep it functioning, though those appointments have now been called into question. As Wilma Liebman, former board chair under Obama, recently noted in a column in Politico, there has not been a full Senate-confirmed, five-member labor board in nearly a decade.
Union leaders in Washington are now pressuring lawmakers on Capitol Hill to exert whatever political capital they can to get board nominees cleared, reportedly pushing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to deploy the "nuclear option," a controversial maneuver that would allow Reid to break a Republican filibuster by forcing a majority vote. The AFL-CIO has tried to use the stories of rank-and-file workers like Hedger to highlight the consequences of a non-functioning board; Hedger himself was featured in a video released by the union federation last week.
In March, HuffPost told the story of West Virginia's Cannelton miners, who've been waiting nearly a decade to have their case before the labor board resolved. The board has ruled twice that the miners are entitled to job reinstatement and backpay after being illegally discriminated against by Massey Energy, but both times the decision has been either thrown out or stayed due to questions over the legitimacy of the board's quorum. Three of the miners have died while waiting for their reinstatements to be finalized.
Hedger said he plans to go back to work at the Fort Dearborn press, if and when his reinstatement comes through. He said his union has stood behind him throughout the ordeal, and he praised the labor board for its handling of the case. The only people who've fallen down on the job, Hedger said, are members of the Senate.
"I stood behind the people who elected me, and I made sure their voice was heard," Hedger said of his role as shop steward. "I was always told I would be protected for doing that. But the people who are supposed to protect me are powerless to do so."
Also on HuffPost:
> Pct. of workers in unions: 5.2% (tied for 9th lowest) > Union workers: 125,557 (25th lowest) > 10-yr. change in union membership: 8.7% (7th largest increase) > Total employment: 2,433,824 (21st highest) Just over 5% of the state’s workers were members of labor unions in 2012, down from 5.6% in 2002 and from 6% in 2011. Arizona is one of a handful of states where private sector union membership expanded between 2002 and 2012, growing by more than 16%. However, the state’s conservative leadership has increasingly become hostile toward these groups. In 2012, Governor Jan Brewer announced her support for legislation to weaken labor unions. Among the proposals were laws prohibiting public labor unions from collective bargaining, ending automatic payroll deductions for union dues and stripping civil-service protections for state employees, making it easier to fire them. The legislation was not passed. (Photo: Arizona Governor Jan Brewer and President Barack Obama) <a href="http://247wallst.com/2013/02/22/the-states-with-the-strongest-and-weakest-unions-3" target="_hplink">Read more at 24/7 Wall St. </a>
> Pct. of workers in unions: 5.2% (tied for 9th lowest) > Union workers: 60,829 (13th lowest) > 10-yr. change in union membership: 3.2% (17th largest increase) > Total employment: 1,181,074 (19th lowest) Utah added over 232,000 jobs between 2002 and 2012, growing employment statewide by a nation-high 24.5%. But over that period the state added less than 2,000 union members. Among the reasons was a large decline in the percentage of public workers who were part of unions — from 21.3% to 15.8%. By comparison, 35.9% of public sector employees are part of a union nationwide. But despite limited and falling union membership among state employees, a bill was introduced earlier this year that would ban collective bargaining on issues not related to wages or benefits by state and local government workers. Opponents argue the bill is not needed, because Utah allows individuals the right to work in union-heavy occupations without either joining the union or paying dues. (Photo: Utah Governor Gary R. Herbert) <a href="http://247wallst.com/2013/02/22/the-states-with-the-strongest-and-weakest-unions-3" target="_hplink">Read more at 24/7 Wall St. </a>
> Pct. of workers in unions: 4.8% (tied for 7th lowest) > Union workers: 29,216 (4th lowest) > 10-yr. change in union membership: -25.2% (9th largest decrease) > Total employment: 613,845 (11th lowest) Although the number of jobs in Idaho increased by more than 11% between 2002 and 2012, union membership declined by a quarter in the same time period. The decline was dispersed relatively evenly across the public and private sectors, with membership falling 21.5% and 28.1%, respectively. In January 2012, a federal judge ruled that a pair of anti-union laws passed by the conservative Idaho legislature violated federal law. As passed, these laws prohibited “job targeting programs” that used union dues to help contractors win bids and also banned “project labor agreements” that allowed contractors to sign agreements with union workers while concurrently bidding on public projects. (Photo: Idaho Governor C. L. Otter) <a href="http://247wallst.com/2013/02/22/the-states-with-the-strongest-and-weakest-unions-3" target="_hplink">Read more at 24/7 Wall St. </a>
> Pct. of workers in unions: 4.8% (tied for 7th lowest) > Union workers: 124,331 (24th lowest) > 10-yr. change in union membership: -43.8% (the largest decrease) > Total employment: 2,590,205 (18th highest) Union membership in Tennessee fell by more than 43% from 2002 to 2012, the largest decline in the nation. In that time, the percentage of workers who were part of a union fell from 9.1% to just 4.8%. Among public sector workers, the decline was even more pronounced — from 22.6% to 14.7%. The state is a right-to-work state. Advocates contend such laws attract jobs, while critics believe they make recruiting union members difficult and ultimately leads to decreased wages. (Photo: Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam) <a href="http://247wallst.com/2013/02/22/the-states-with-the-strongest-and-weakest-unions-3" target="_hplink">Read more at 24/7 Wall St. </a>
> Pct. of workers in unions: 4.4% (tied for 5th lowest) > Union workers: 170,726 (20th highest) > 10-yr. change in union membership: -21.7% (14th largest decrease) > Total employment: 3,912,100 (8th highest) Between 2002 and 2012, Georgia added over 300,000 workers, one of the largest employment increases in the nation during that time. However, because the number of union workers declined by over 47,000, union participation fell from an already-low 6% to just 4.4%. Between 2002 and 2012, public union participation fell from 18.6% to just 10.5% — lower than all but four other states. Although more than 130,000 new public sector jobs were created over those 10 years, union membership fell by nearly 30% among public employees. Last year, only 3.1% of private sector employees were affiliated with a union — among the lowest percentages of all states in the U.S. (Photo: Georgia Governor Nathan Deal) <a href="http://247wallst.com/2013/02/22/the-states-with-the-strongest-and-weakest-unions-3" target="_hplink">Read more at 24/7 Wall St. </a>
> Pct. of workers in unions: 4.4% (tied for 5th lowest) > Union workers: 159,512 (24th highest) > 10-yr. change in union membership: -18.8% (15th largest decrease) > Total employment: 3,594,507 (12th highest) Virginia has one of the lowest unionization rates in the country in both the private and public sectors. A mere 3% of private sector workers in the state were unionized in 2012. Just over 10% of public sector employees were covered by a union in 2012, a lower percentage than all but two states and down from 15.6% in 2002. Labor unions did eke out a small victory in January, when the Virginia Senate narrowly rejected a proposal to add right-to-work provisions to the state constitution. The state’s right-to-work law is still in effect by statute. (Photo: Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell) <a href="http://247wallst.com/2013/02/22/the-states-with-the-strongest-and-weakest-unions-3" target="_hplink">Read more at 24/7 Wall St. </a>
> Pct. of workers in unions: 4.3% > Union workers: 47,875 (8th lowest) > 10-yr. change in union membership: -32.2% (3rd largest decrease) > Total employment: 1,115,953 (17th lowest) Total union membership in Mississippi was just over 4% last year, with total membership declining nearly a third in the past 10 years. Private union membership was cut in half between 2002 and 2012, falling from 6% to 3%. This was one of the largest decreases of all states. However, membership in public sector unions actually rose nearly 12%, significantly more than any of the bottom 10 states on this list. The economic situation in Mississippi is especially grim. The state’s median household income of $36,919 was the lowest in the U.S., as was the poverty rate of 22.6%. (Photo: Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant) <a href="http://247wallst.com/2013/02/22/the-states-with-the-strongest-and-weakest-unions-3" target="_hplink">Read more at 24/7 Wall St. </a>
3. South Carolina
> Pct. of workers in unions: 3.3% > Union workers: 58,413 (12th lowest) > 10-yr. change in union membership: -29.3% (7th largest decrease) > Total employment: 1,773,172 (24th highest) Just one in 30 workers in South Carolina belongs to a union, one of the lowest rates in the country. A paltry 1.3% of private sector workers in the state belong to a union, the lowest percentage in the entire country. Over the past 10 years, private sector union membership declined by 61.7%, more than any other state except for Arkansas. The state’s governor, Nikki Haley, has taken a vocal anti-union stance since taking office in 2011. In an interview with Fox News back in 2012, Haley said: “There’s a reason that South Carolina’s the new ‘it’ state. It’s because we are a union buster.” (Photo: South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley) <a href="http://247wallst.com/2013/02/22/the-states-with-the-strongest-and-weakest-unions-3" target="_hplink">Read more at 24/7 Wall St. </a>
> Pct. of workers in unions: 3.2% > Union workers: 36,667 (6th lowest) > 10-yr. change in union membership: -42.1% (2nd largest decrease) > Total employment: 1,155,140 (18th lowest) Arkansas has the second smallest percentage of unionized workers, due primarily to the decline in private sector membership. Between 2002 and 2012, private sector union membership dropped by almost 62%. As of 2012, a mere 1.4% of private sector workers were covered by labor unions, lower than any other state except for South Carolina. Union manufacturing jobs in the state decreased by nearly 75% over the past 10 years, while total manufacturing employment decreased by just 20.6%. Arkansas is one of just a handful of states where right-to-work laws are embedded in the state’s constitution. (Arkansas Governor: Mike Beebe) <a href="http://247wallst.com/2013/02/22/the-states-with-the-strongest-and-weakest-unions-3" target="_hplink">Read more at 24/7 Wall St. </a>
1. North Carolina
> Pct. of workers in unions: 2.9% > Union workers: 111,482 (21st lowest) > 10-yr. change in union membership: -1.3% (31st largest decrease) > Total employment: 3,804,593 (9th highest) With just 2.9% of employees in a labor union in 2012, North Carolina is the least-unionized state in the entire country. Only 1.8% of private sector workers were members of a labor union as of 2012, lower than any state except for South Carolina and Arkansas. In addition, only 8.8% of public employees in the state belong to a union, the lowest rate in the country. While the number of public sector jobs grew 20% between 2002 and 2012, the percentage of public workers unionized declined from 10.5% in 2002. Although many right-to-work proponents claim that deunionization helps spur job creation, North Carolina’s lack of union representation has not led to low unemployment — the unemployment rate in the state as of December 2012 was 9.2%, the fifth highest rate in the country. (Photo: North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory) <a href="http://247wallst.com/2013/02/22/the-states-with-the-strongest-and-weakest-unions-3" target="_hplink">Read more at 24/7 Wall St. </a>