U.S. Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) arrives at the U.S. Capitol on July 19, 2022.

U.S. Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) arrives at the U.S. Capitol on July 19, 2022.

(Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

'To Hold Billionaire CEOs Accountable,' House Dems and Union Leaders Push for Fully Funded NLRB

"What the hell are we doing here if we are not taking care of working-class people?" asked Rep. Jamaal Bowman.

A half-dozen progressive lawmakers joined multiple union representatives at a Tuesday afternoon press conference outside the U.S. Capitol to urge Democratic leaders to include ample funding for the cash-starved National Labor Relations Board in the final appropriations bill of the lame-duck session--before Republicans take control of the House.

International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) president Jimmy Williams and Communications Workers of America (CWA) secretary-treasurer Sara Steffens--co-chairs of the Worker Power Coalition, a nationwide alliance of labor and environmental advocacy groups representing 24 million workers--were accompanied by Democratic Reps. Jamaal Bowman (N.Y.), Ro Khanna (Calif.), Andy Levin (Mich.), Donald Norcross (N.J.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), and Ilhan Omar (Minn.).

"If we can invest almost a trillion dollars in our military, we can take care of our workers."

"Our country is experiencing a moment of mass worker organizing--71% of Americans approve of unions and tens of millions of Americans would join a union right now if they could without retaliation or harassment," said Williams. "But the drastic underfunding of the NLRB means that many of these workers will face delays in getting a union vote or receiving justice for illegal retaliation or termination from their employers, which is why Congress must respond to this crisis to stand with workers and fully fund the NLRB with this urgent budget bill."

Due to GOP opposition, the federal agency tasked with enforcing U.S. labor law hasn't received a funding increase in nearly a decade. The NLRB's annual budget has been frozen at $274.2 million since fiscal year 2014, which amounts to a 25% cut when inflation is taken into account.

While the NLRB's budget has effectively shrunk, its workload has soared. The agency recently reported that from FY2021 to FY2022, the number of union representation petitions and unfair labor practice (ULP) charges filed grew by 53% and 19%, respectively. Meanwhile, the number of NLRB officials who oversee union elections and investigate employer abuses has been slashed by 50% since FY2002.

Last month, NLRB Chair Lauren McFerran and General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo warned members of Congress that the agency "has exhausted its ability to absorb cost increases through staff attrition and operational efficiencies." They added that it "has already implemented a hiring freeze and, without additional funding, will likely be forced to pursue furloughs." The NLRB Union was more blunt, characterizing the situation as "budgetary Armageddon."

In a statement released Wednesday, as federal lawmakers rush to finalize a year-end omnibus spending package, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) warned that "the consequences of a funding shortfall could be disastrous for workers who rely on the NLRB to fairly oversee their efforts to unionize and to hold employers accountable for violating their rights, including Amazon and Starbucks workers."

EPI urged Congress to "move beyond a short-term continuing resolution that would keep the agency's inadequate funding flat, and to reach an agreement that increases non-defense spending enough to give the NLRB the resources it desperately needs to fulfill the agency's basic mandate."

In remarks prepared for Tuesday's press conference, Steffens said: "As someone who was fired for union organizing, I know firsthand how dangerous it is to leave union-busting CEOs unchecked. Whether it's Starbucks workers in Memphis, an Amazon warehouse worker in New York, or a Verizon retail worker in Seattle, the fact is that far too many workers are being fired for exercising their right to form a union."

"The NLRB must receive the full funding it needs to hold these billionaire CEOs accountable," she continued. "Every Democrat who made campaign promises to stand with workers needs to put action behind their words by ending the funding freeze and giving the NLRB the resources it needs to level the playing field for workers. The Worker Power Coalition and the 24 million workers we represent are watching, and if Democrats fail to stand with workers now, we will remember when we go to the ballot box in 2024."

Steffens' message was echoed by Omar.

"Big corporations and their CEOs routinely violate the law to bust unions and cling to their profits," said the Minnesota Democrat. "It is the NLRB that holds these billionaire CEOs accountable when they try to stand in the way of worker power."

However, the enforcers of labor law "are under threat from Republicans who want to weaken them and undermine their work," Omar continued. "We will not stop fighting to ensure that they have the resources they need to hold these union-busters accountable and make sure everyone's basic rights to organize and collectively bargain are protected."

Levin, meanwhile, asked, "What better Christmas present could the worst actors ask for than an understaffed NLRB that simply doesn't have the people power to oversee prompt elections or investigate firings and other forms of intimidation and unfair dealings?"

He urged his colleagues to approve "full funding for the NLRB--now!"

Time is of the essence, given that a funding increase is far less likely once GOP lawmakers--who have made clear their opposition to boosting the NLRB's budget--take the reins of the House in January.

"We need to get this done this Congress, between now and December 31st," Ocasio-Cortez said at Tuesday's news conference. "I'm not going to sit here and pretend that a Republican-controlled Congress is going to put this at the top of the docket."

As TIMEreported Tuesday:

The effort to secure a relatively modest budget increase for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) comes at a fraught moment for the labor movement. Earlier this month, President [Joe] Biden, who promised to be the most pro-union president in American history, signed a bill blocking a strike of rail workers who were threatening to walk off the job over having no paid sick leave. For some labor leaders, boosting the agency's funding would be a sign Democrats aren't taking the movement's support for granted.
"The fact that we have to have a press conference and draw attention to this issue shows what's fundamentally wrong," says Joseph Geevarghese, the executive director of Our Revolution, whose members held pro-union signs as lawmakers spoke outside the Capitol. "The Democratic Party is not in touch with its roots."

Progressive warnings about the dire consequences of failing to shore up the NLRB have grown louder as the Democratic Party's unilateral control of the federal government draws to a close. Last week, the NLRB Union organized a rally, which came after the president of the NLRB Professional Association--a separate union representing 122 staff attorneys and Freedom of Information Act specialists at the agency--sent a letter to congressional appropriators.

On Monday, AFL-CIO president Liz Shuler and the presidents of more than 40 unions called on Congress to "fund the NLRB so the agency can hire staff and procure the necessary resources to conduct hearings and elections, investigate ULP charges, and obtain full and prompt remedies for workers whose rights are violated."

"We are not upholding the ideals of our Constitution if we do not take care of our workers."

"The lack of NLRB staff and delays in processing contribute to a hostile environment for organizing unions and filing ULPs," the labor leaders noted. "Workers are far more hesitant to engage with the agency to enforce their rights or form a union when they think their case may take a year or two to be resolved."

This appears to be precisely the type of anti-worker environment that the GOP is eager to cultivate. Earlier this year, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), the top Republican on the House Committee on Education and Labor, derided the Biden administration's request for a $319 million NLRB budget for FY2023 as a "stupid idea."

Norcross, by contrast, said Tuesday that continuing to shortchange the NLRB does "a disservice to the hardworking women and men who keep our nation running at every level and every sector of our economy."

Last month, the New Jersey Democrat and member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, joined the five other co-chairs of the Congressional Labor Caucus (CLC), including IUPAT member Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), in imploring House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to prioritize funding the NLRB before Republicans take control of the House.

The CLC leaders' recent effort was a follow-up to an April letter in which 149 House Democrats, led by Norcross, asked House Appropriations Committee leaders to approve a $368 million NLRB budget for FY2023.

That is a drop in the bucket compared with the $858 billion military budget passed last week in the House with bipartisan support, a point made Tuesday by Bowman.

"If we can invest almost a trillion dollars in our military, we can take care of our workers," said the New York Democrat. "We are not upholding the ideals of our Constitution if we do not take care of our workers. We're faking the funk, we are frauds."

"What the hell are we doing here if we are not taking care of working-class people?" he asked.

"This is a critical moment for Democrats to live up to our values and stand in solidarity with workers across the country," said Bowman. "The NLRB is vital to protecting workers from unlawful and inhumane unfair labor practices by big corporations who care more about padding their billions in profits than about protecting basic human rights and treating their workers with dignity."

"At a time when we are seeing a historic surge both in organizing and in despicable union-busting activities," the lawmaker added, "we cannot allow full funding for the NLRB to be deprioritized."

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.