It doesn’t take much snow to knock Washington off balance. The weekend blizzard has effectively shut down the town today, when the Senate had been scheduled to vote on the nomination of Harold Craig Becker to the National Labor Relations Board.
Becker is likely to be blocked by a successful Republican filibuster on Tuesday, February 9, now that Sen. Scott Brown, R-Massachusetts, has joined the caucus.
Brown moved up his swearing-in by a week in order to be seated for the vote on Becker, who scares the business community because of what it calls his radical pro-union views.
A professor of law and associate general counsel for two unions--the Service Employees International Union and the AFL-CIO--Becker appeared before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee last week to explain why he argued in academic papers that employers should have no voice in employee representation elections.
His answers failed to assuage Republicans on the panel, two of whom switched their votes to “no” after having voted “yes” on his nomination in the fall. This signals that the GOP is going to stick together on a filibuster.
More fireworks are likely to flare after the filibuster. It looks as if Senate Democrats are recommending that President Barack Obama make a recess appointment when the chamber leaves town for Presidents’ Day week.
If Becker gets a recess appointment, he could serve for nearly two years. A controversial NLRB member in the Bush administration, Peter Kirsanow, was given a recess appointment, which lasted from January 2006 to January 2008.
Since January 2008, the five-member board has been operating with just two members. Their decisions over the last two years may be invalidated, if the Supreme Court rules that a truncated board is not sufficient to make rulings. A recess appointment would add to the board two other NLRB nominees--a Republican and a Democrat--because they are being presented as a package with Becker.
So that brings us to the current impasse. In a Capitol Hill press conference shortly after his swearing-in, Brown did not take a position on Becker. But Brown’s arrival on Capitol Hill has changed the calculus for labor-law reform.
With 41 members--just enough to sustain a filibuster--Republicans can block the Employee Free Choice Act, which would allow workers to organize by signing cards rather than through a secret-ballot election.
Business groups are framing a vote for Becker as a vote for the act, warning that Becker and the 3-2 NLRB Democratic majority will try to implement aspects of the bill administratively.
Whether the board can do so on its own without a revision in labor law is the subject of debate. What is inevitable is that the NLRB will shift direction--probably 180 degrees--under a Democratic majority.
The question is how much the labor agenda will change now that Brown is in town. His presence instantly put the brakes on the hottest congressional topic--health care reform.
On that issue, Obama has been forced to do something that he should have done from the start--sit down with Republicans and Democrats for a meaningful discussion of how to compromise on ways to improve health care coverage and lower costs.
The president, however, is not making any such bold moves when it comes to business-labor relations. These two groups will be locked in a cage-match death grip for the foreseeable future.
But it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. For one thing, Brown won about 49 percent of union households in the Massachusetts special election to replace the late Sen. Edward Kennedy.
“This will be a good case to see whether he will support the people who supported him,” Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa and chairman of the Senate labor committee, says of the Becker vote.
Maybe Brown will bring the GOP caucus a little to the left on labor law. In addition, unions might not want to pursue Pyrrhic victories, undermining the companies that produce jobs for their members.
“No one is more vested in the long-term health and survival of a company than its employees and their union,” says Erin Johansson, senior research associate at American Rights at Work. “And many unionized firms know this and understand the value that labor-management partnerships bring to the company’s success.”
Eventually, labor and management have to get along in the corporate world. It’s too bad they are resisting a relationship in Washington.