Biden’s new NLRB shows what real enforcement looks like

“Why do you guys pull this horseshit?” The scene is from the 1979 film Norma Rae, based on a real-life union organizing campaign at J.P. Stevens Mill in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. Above, actor Rob Liebman plays union organizer Reuben Warshowsky.

By BOB BUSSEL, University of Oregon Labor Education and Research Center professor emeritus

One of my favorite scenes in the classic labor film “Norma Rae” occurs when the character played by Ron Liebman enters the textile mill his union is attempting to organize.

Escorted by a group of managers, Liebman seeks to find a notice that the fictional O. P. Henley Company has been ordered to display by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). In the notice, Henley’s management agreed to stop engaging in illegal activities aimed at dissuading workers from organizing.

When Liebman finally locates the notice posted high upon a wall, he complains to management that “Wilt Chamberlain on stilts could not read this!” [Note to younger sports fans: NBA player Chamberlain was famously 7’1”] To the delight of the workers looking on, Liebman eventually gets the company officials to lower the notice to eye level. For the workers, this episode attested to the power of the union and growing confidence that the government was prepared to defend their right to organize.

I was reminded of this scene when I read about the recent settlement agreement between Amazon and the NLRB. As Jennifer Abruzzo, the NLRB’s new top enforcement official, explained: “Whether a company has 10 employees or a million employees, it must abide by the National Labor Relations Act. This settlement agreement provides a crucial commitment from Amazon to millions of its workers across the United States that it will not interfere with their right to act collectively to improve their workplace by forming a union or taking other collective action.” 

Equally important, the labor board is sending a copy of the settlement agreement to thousands of Amazon workers. The agreement also authorizes speedy action by the board if Amazon fails to comply with its terms.

This agreement represents strong action that goes beyond the usual “cease and desist” orders issued by the NLRB. Besides the Amazon settlement and the recent ordering of a new union election at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, the board’s refusal to let Starbucks delay representation elections in Buffalo, New York, shows its commitment to defend workers’ rights. As NLRB general counsel Abruzzo has said, under the Biden NLRB, even the most powerful companies are not above the law.

The “new sheriff in town” has not stopped here. Abruzzo has extended labor law protections to student athletes and immigrant workers. She has taken a broad view of what constitutes “concerted, protected activity” and called for injunctions against employers who commit unfair labor practices. And she has said she may challenge employers who refuse to recognize unions when a clear majority has signed union cards.

Of course, passing the PRO Act would give the NLRB additional enforcement tools to protect workers’ rights and should remain a top labor movement priority. Still, it is important to note that the National Labor Relations Act, which is much in need of overhaul, has only been amended twice since its passage 86 years ago. In both cases (Taft-Hartley and Landrum-Griffin) the changes were not in labor’s favor. 

As we carry on the uphill fight to pass the PRO Act, the union movement needs to take full advantage of an NLRB that is showing us what aggressive enforcement of labor law can look like. Although we must not exaggerate the NLRB’s ability to support workers or regulate employer behavior, we should recognize the opportunity before us. With direct action by workers from below and the NLRB pushing the envelope from above, our ability to organize new sectors of the working class is markedly enhanced. And for workers seeking to exercise their rights, collective action supported by vigorous enforcement can be an irresistible combination.

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