WASHINGTON -- The Senate confirmed all five of President Barack Obama's nominees to the National Labor Relations Board on Tuesday, marking the first time in a decade that the agency has enjoyed a full slate of confirmed board members.
It was no simple feat. The board, which enforces labor law on companies and unions, was headed toward a shutdown in August, leading Senate Democrats to threaten use of the so-called "nuclear option" to break a Republican filibuster over nominees. Republicans ultimately agreed to let Obama's labor board picks proceed in order to avoid a potentially historic change of Senate rules.
The vote Tuesday assures that the board will continue to function and mediate labor disputes, even though some board critics on the right have said they'd rather see it inoperable. While many Americans aren't even familiar with the board or its duties, the NLRB has become a lightning rod in the broader fight over collective bargaining rights in the U.S. workplace.
The Senate confirmation places three Democrats and two Republicans on the five-member board, in keeping with the tradition of a three-member majority hailing from the president's party. The Democrats are Mark Pearce, the current chairman; Nancy Schiffer, a labor lawyer from the AFL-CIO; and Kent Hirozawa, who's served as chief counsel to Pearce. The Republicans are management-side labor lawyers Harry Johnson III and Philip Miscimarra.
The board members serve on staggered terms, and Pearce's current term was set to expire in late August. With two of the seats already vacant, that would have dropped the board below the three-member quorum it needs to legally conduct business. Since a shutdown would leave the board unable to enforce labor law and protect workers, unions had mounted a public campaign aimed at pressuring the Senate into confirming Obama's nominees.
On Tuesday, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) -- a defender of the board under Obama -- said the independent agency should be left to do its business without being dragged into political fights on Capitol Hill.
"It's time to ratchet down the political rhetoric that has haunted this agency," Harkin said.
Amid growing gridlock on Capitol Hill, Democratic and Republican presidents alike have relied upon recess appointments that don't require Senate confirmation in order to keep the board functioning in recent years. But earlier this year, two of Obama's Democratic recess appointments were deemed invalid by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, potentially throwing out more than a year's worth of work by the board. The Supreme Court has agreed to take up the case.
After the appeals ruling, Republicans called on the two recess appointments, Sharon Block and Richard Griffin, to step down. After Obama renominated them, Republicans signaled that they would block them on the grounds that they'd already served illegitimately. In the deal brokered to avoid the filibuster showdown, Democrats agreed to replace Block and Griffin with two new nominees -- Schiffer and Hirozawa.
The last time a full board had been confirmed by the Senate was 2003. And until recently, it appeared highly unlikely that Senate Republicans would give Obama's nominees a stamp of approval.
Republicans have assailed the board under Obama for its rules and decisions seen as friendly to organized labor, even moderate-seeming ones, such as a requirement that employers hang posters notifying workers of their rights under labor law. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of the board's staunchest critics, once declared that an "inoperable" board could be "considered progress."
With the board thrown in limbo due to the appeals court ruling, many workers saw their pending cases get stalled, to the benefit of the corporations. As HuffPost reported, one group of miners in West Virginia had been waiting nearly a decade to have their union-busting case with coal giant Massey Energy resolved. The miners' favorable ruling by the NLRB in 2012 -- which would have reinstated them on their jobs with backpay -- was stayed due to the appeals court decision that two of the board members at the time had been invalidly appointed.