01/10/2012 05:56 pm ET Updated Mar 11, 2012

Watchdogs and Underdogs

By now most people are aware that while Congress was in recess, President Obama, on January 4, appointed former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The move drew considerable attention, with consumer advocates expressing their delight, and business groups predicting the demise of the free enterprise system.

Then, only hours after Cordray, Obama recess-appointed three people to the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board), giving it a full complement of five members for the first time in almost a year. The new faces are Sandra Block, Richard Griffin and Terrence Flynn. They join current members Mark Pearce and Brian Hayes. Block, Griffin and Pearce are Democrats; Flynn and Hayes are Republicans.

Despite the hype surrounding these appointments, it's hard to know how much praise Obama deserves. After all, appointing qualified people to government posts is what a president is supposed to do. Why would it require kudos? And as to the "audacity quotient" of recess-appointments, that's also been a bit inflated. Consider: Bill Clinton made 139 such appointments; George W. Bush made 171; and in 1903, Teddy Roosevelt made 160 of them... all in the same day.

On the other hand -- given that Republicans despise regulatory agencies, given that they've spent 75 years beating up on the NLRB, given that they've purposely kept it understaffed (a labor board with two members isn't a quorum, and doesn't have the authority to issue rulings), and given that, even with a 53-47 senate majority poised to approve Obama's nominees, they'd promised to filibuster -- Obama's moves were, in fact, quite bold. Not only were they bold, they were way overdue. Credit organized labor for keeping the president's feet to the fire. That reported $400 million they donated to the Democrats in 2008 finally bought them something.

While Republicans regard the NLRB as "interfering with" and "restricting" business, the board views itself as providing the underdog with basic safeguards -- safeguards, incidentally, that are written into our federal labor laws. The board merely enforces those laws. When people get fired for engaging in union activism, or when a workforce requests a union election but is denied, or when management negotiators refuse to bargain in good faith, it's the NLRB that comes to the rescue.

Although congressional Republicans are already threatening legal action and issuing hysterical statements, there's not much they can do about it, which means the NLRB, at least through 2012, is going to have a fair amount of latitude in addressing workers' concerns.

One of those concerns will be union membership drives. According to surveys, upwards of 60 percent of American workers have expressed an interest in joining a union, attracted by across-the-board advantages in wages, benefits and working conditions. But national membership stands at barely over 12 percent. While part of that differential can be written off to the unreliability of surveys, the larger part is clearly due to management's ability to keep the union out through the use of its two favorite weapons: stalling and intimidation.

There are hundreds of documented cases of companies illegally attempting to dissuade workers from joining a union. They threaten, they lie, they cajole, they bully, they bribe, they spy, they hire professional goons to assist them. They also use legal tactics. I knew a retired woman who, on a whim, decided to take a part-time job at Walmart to augment her pension. She was astonished by the level of anti-union propaganda. As a new employee, she was immediately shown a 45-minute movie on the evils of labor unions.

Consider the FDA (Food and Drug Administration, established way back in 1906). One can only imagine the extent of marketplace mischief if the FDA weren't there to serve as watchdog. The same applies to the NLRB. Indeed, without the labor board, there would be no way to ensure workplace justice. Employees would be at the mercy of "management tyranny." A healthy and active NLRB is not a luxury; it's a necessity.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor"), was a former union rep. He can be reached at