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A Labor Revolt Is Brewing... Inside the National Labor Relations Board

"From Congress, we demand funds, not furloughs," says the NLRB union. "From NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo, we demand collaboration, not coercion."

Workers at the federal agency tasked with enforcing U.S. labor law are directing their ire at their own bosses and members of Congress.

"Fund the NLRB. Support our staff. Protect the agency's mission."

The union representing rank-and-file employees of the National Labor Relations Board announced Thursday on social media that it plans to hold a rally to support agency staff outside the NLRB's Washington, D.C. headquarters on December 8.

In addition to drawing attention to how "a decade of underfunding" has brought about what the NLRB Union recently called "budgetary Armageddon," agency workers and their supporters intend to protest NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo's ongoing attempt to limit teleworking, which they say is an attack on her employees' quality of life and ability to do their jobs.

"Case intake is exploding. Furloughs are imminent," the NLRB Union tweeted. "We need immediate action. WE NEED FAIR FUNDING NOW."

"But that's not all. Our own NLRB bosses will soon make our jobs even harder by restricting our ability to work remotely," the union continued. "Starting 12/26, Abruzzo will force us to waste time by commuting more to the office. Our work and lives will be needlessly burdened. Our mission will suffer."

"Instead of serving as a model of healthy labor relations," the union added, "Abruzzo has put her foot on our necks. The voices of hundreds of NLRB staff demanding continued modest workplace flexibilities have been coldly ignored, just to gain leverage at the bargaining table."

Calling for "immediate action," the NLRB Union wrote: "From Congress, we demand funds, not furloughs. Staff, not stagnation. From Abruzzo, we demand collaboration, not coercion."

"Run the agency with respect, not rigidity. Stop hard bargaining and simply let us do our work!" the union urged. "Fund the NLRB. Support our staff. Protect the agency's mission."

Also on Thursday, Karen Cook, president of the NLRB Professional Association--a separate union representing 122 staff attorneys and Freedom of Information Act specialists at the NLRB--sent a letter imploring congressional appropriators to allocate more money to the cash-starved agency.

The yearslong failure of federal lawmakers "to appropriate sufficient funds for the agency," wrote Cook, "has jeopardized our workforce's ability... to fulfill the mandate assigned by Congress," which is to enforce the right of workers under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) to engage in pro-union activity.

"Since FY 2014, the NLRB has received the same $274 million dollar appropriation," Cook noted. "That funding level actually represents a cut from FY 2010, where the board was appropriated $283.4 million. Adjusted for inflation, the agency's funding has been cut almost 30% since the 2010 fiscal year."

"As federal employees, we are constantly asked to do more with less," Cook lamented. "We work on 10-year-old computers with limited legal research tools and outdated electronic case management systems. Training funds evaporate, while headquarters personnel who've been asked to assist with cases in different regions are not able to do so in person because travel has been curtailed."

While "the number of full-time staff has dropped from over 1,700 to around 1,200" since 2010, "there has not been a corresponding decrease in the agency's workload," Cook pointed out. "Instead, representation petitions and unfair labor practice [ULP] charges have proliferated. From FY 2014 to FY 2022, the number of ULP filings per field staffer increased 39%."

"The only mechanism to enforce the core rights under the NLRA is through the NLRB," wrote Cook. "An employee does not have a private right of action to sue their employer for interfering with employees' organizational rights or retaliating against them for engaging in protected activity. Accordingly, when Congress fails to adequately fund the NLRB, it is those employees (and their workplaces) who are harmed by the delays in case processing."

Cook continued:

Ironically, the proposed raise for federal employees, although well-deserved, is no boon to employees of the NLRB. Having already made cuts in spending, the agency has no room to absorb payment of the increase without an increased appropriation. I know of no other federal agency that will be forced to furlough employees in order to raise pay, and no other federal employees whose cost-of-living increases will be clawed back in the form of unpaid, forced furloughs. In these circumstances, we are left to wonder what rational, prospective public servant would sign up for a career defending NLRA rights when Congress has made clear that those civil servants are so disfavored.

Having spent almost 40 years working for this agency, I can report first-hand that the current predicament facing the agency is without precedent. When I joined this agency, there was a consensus across the political spectrum that the rights enshrined in the NLRA are a bedrock of modern American democracy and that they bolster interstate commerce and profitability, as well as middle-class achievement of the American dream. Those safeguards and rights will not endure as an indelible feature of the 21st century social contract unless Congress maintains a commitment to them. It is with that in mind that I implore you to increase the National Labor Relations Board's appropriation to a level that will allow the board to not only avoid furloughs but also increase hiring.

The letter from the NLRB Professional Association comes just two days after the co-chairs of the Congressional Labor Caucus urged House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to ensure that the NLRB receives additional funding in the final appropriations bill of the lame-duck session--before Republican lawmakers, who have demonstrated a greater hostility toward organized labor, take control of the House.

Citing another recent letter in which NLRB leadership told members of Congress that the agency "has already implemented a hiring freeze and, without additional funding, will likely be forced to pursue furloughs," the labor caucus leaders stressed that "we must heed this stark warning."

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