WASHINGTON -- The federal agency that enforces labor law on companies and unions has been almost entirely shuttered since the government shutdown began, delaying union elections and stalling the investigation of unfair labor practices.
The National Labor Relations Board was nearly derailed earlier this year due to fights in Congress and the courts over President Obama's recess appointments to the board. Although the agency survived that political spat intact, it isn't faring so well during the shutdown. Out of more than 1,600 employees, the agency planned to furlough all but 11 of them in the case of government closure, leaving less than 1 percent of its workforce as "excepted" shutdown personnel, according to the agency's contingency plan.
That would mean the federal agency is working with fewer employees nationwide than the individual D.C. offices of certain senators, many of whom have deemed their entire staffs excepted personnel during the shutdown. Ten senators -- seven Republicans, including Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), and three Democrats -- haven't furloughed any staffers at all, according to a HuffPost count.
The NLRB's functioning staff includes the five members of the independent board itself, its acting general counsel and a handful of other high-level personnel in Washington. The lawyers and other employees in the agency's regional offices throughout the country -- who perform the nuts and bolts of investigation and enforcement -- would have been sent home.
An NLRB spokesman, speaking in a message left on his office voicemail, said the agency is closed for business and won't be responding to calls until the shutdown is over.
Only a week into the shutdown, and with the agency's website on hiatus, it isn't clear how many labor cases have been held up by the lapse in funding. But in a notice posted to the federal register on Friday and flagged by Federal News Radio, the labor board said it would have to indefinitely push back all hearings on unfair labor practice charges. The so-called ULP's, a critical component of labor law, can be filed against employers or unions, and often involve some form of coercion during a workplace organizing effort.
Union-side lawyers and activists often complain that U.S. labor law moves at a glacial pace to begin with, shutdown or no.
"When everything grinds to a halt like this, it gives employers their best union-busting tool available -- a delay," said Michael Wasser, senior policy analyst at American Rights at Work, a union-backed non-profit. "This is a classic trickle down effect of the shutdown -- a paralyzed NLRB means no one is policing the workplace and enforcing workers' rights."
On Monday, The Sentinel, of Hanford, Calif., reported that the shutdown has indefinitely delayed the re-certification vote for a cheese plant unionized by the Teamsters last year. The management at Marquez Brothers stopped recognizing the union last month after a group of workers petitioned to have the Teamsters dropped, according to the Sentinel. "NLRB employees who would have been [sic] supervised the voting have been furloughed," the paper reported.
The Ohio News-Messenger also reported that the shutdown has stayed a union election in Cleveland, where workers at a trash-hauling company were set to vote on whether or not to join the Teamsters. A local union official told the paper the vote had been pushed back but no new date had been set. In that case, four workers had filed complaints with the labor board, claiming they were fired because of their pro-union stances.
And according to the Communications Workers of America, the NLRB was in the midst of hearing unfair labor practice charges against Cablevision in New York when the government shutdown began.
For years the Obama labor board has been in the crosshairs of congressional Republicans, who've lambasted the rulings of its Democratic majority as being too friendly to unions. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a vocal critic of the board, went so far as to say it should be rendered "inoperable." Sitting at the center of a recent fight over the filibuster, the agency would have been unable to issue decisions by the end of August had Democrats and Republicans not hashed out a deal on Senate confirmations.