Rich Ahearn — northwest regional director of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) — retired Dec. 30 after 37 years with the agency.
NLRB attorney Anne Pomerantz will serve as acting regional director until Ronald Hooks replaces Ahearn in April. Hooks, a 40-year NLRB employee, currently directs the Memphis, Tennessee, regional office.
The NLRB is an independent federal agency that administers the National Labor Relations Act, the law that spells out the union rights of most private sector employees. The NLRB conducts elections to determine if workers want a union, and it investigates accusations of “unfair labor practices,” its term for employer or union violations of the act.
NLRB’s northwest region, Region 19, has a staff of 48 that is responsible for Washington, Oregon, Alaska, northern Idaho and western Montana. It’s headquartered in downtown Seattle, with satellite offices in Portland, Oregon, and Anchorage, Alaska. The job of regional director is to oversee NLRB staff, and to make all decisions about elections and about whether to issue a complaint in unfair labor practice cases.
Two very famous NLRB cases bear Ahearn’s signature: last year’s Machinists vs. Boeing case, and the 1997 Kentucky River case.
Ahearn, 65, told the Labor Press he learned about unions at the dinner table growing up in Northampton, Massachussetts. His father, a custodian at Smith College, was a member of Service Employees International Union.
Ahearn studied political science at Columbia College in New York City, graduating in 1968. For a time, he taught American history at the Dalton School in Manhattan. Then in 1973, while attending Northeastern University School of Law, he went to work at the NLRB Boston office as a student assistant. He later worked at the NLRB’s Albany, Baltimore, Buffalo, and Cincinnatti offices, before becoming regional director in Seattle since April 2003.
Ahearn was Cincinnati regional director when the Kentucky River case came to his desk. Kentucky River Community Care argued that its registered nurses were supervisors and therefore had no right to be in a union under the law. Ahearn looked at the facts and determined that they were employees, not supervisors. But the case was appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which overruled the NLRB by a 5-4 majority in 2001.
Then last year, Ahearn’s office handled the Machinists vs. Boeing case. With the backing of the NLRB’s top prosecutor, Ahearn issued a complaint against Boeing for having built a new assembly line in South Carolina specifically because its union workers at other locations had exercised their right to strike. A furious reaction by Republicans in Congress threatened to take the NLRB down, but in the end, the union settled with Boeing and dropped the charge.
Unionists may think of the NLRB as an agency that defends workers’ union rights, however weakly. But agency staff look upon themselves as neutrals when it comes to disputes between workers and employers.
One of Ahearn’s final decisions was to issue a complaint against a union, ILWU Local 21, for aggressively picketing the EGT terminal in Longview. The NLRB asked for a court injunction to stop the picketers from blocking the facility. A judge issued an injunction, and then ordered fines totaling $315,000 after he determined that union members were violating it.
In retirement, Ahearn says he may do some work in labor arbitration.
His wife is a retired associate dean at Seattle University Law School. They have two grown daughters. A retirement party for Ahearn was scheduled for Jan. 19 at non-union Hotel Monaco in Seattle.
Hooks, Ahearn’s replacement, has been Memphis regional director since 2000. He graduated from Lemoyne-Owen College in Memphis, and received a law degree from Rutgers University School of Law in 1971. He went to work for the NLRB’s Memphis office in 1972, later transferred to the Fort Worth, Indianapolis, and New Orleans offices, and returned to Memphis in 1992.