It was a full house Jan. 27: Some 275 union stewards, officers, and bargaining team members packed the IBEW Local 48 hall in Northeast Portland for the Oregon Labor Law Conference. And one of the top speakers was Jessica Dietz, the agent in charge of the Portland office of the National Labor Relations Board.
Dietz explained in detail how the agency works, and she apologized for the slowness union reps are seeing in the agency’s processing of elections and unfair labor practice charge cases.
But she also explained why: Congress has been slowly starving the agency of funding and staff. For 20 years, the agency’s budget was frozen at $274 million, which meant federally mandated employee raises had to come out of the existing budget—a recipe for steady staff cuts. Today there are just about 1,200 NLRB staff nationwide, and they’re responsible for administering union certification elections and protect the union rights of 150 million workers.
To cover all of Oregon and Southwest Washington, Dietz has just eight staff in her office in the federal building in downtown Portland, including three investigators and two attorneys.
Last year Congress gave the NLRB a long-overdue increase of $25 million (9%), but it was too little too late. $19 million of that is eaten up by rent increases alone, Dietz said, and it came just as the agency’s workload exploded.
For the 2022 federal fiscal year (which ended in October) the NLRB the number of union election petitions increased by 53% over the previous year. Dietz’ Portland office saw a 121% increase in union election filings—from 52 to 115 petitions. And Dietz says the level of union organizing hasn’t slowed down since then.
Nationwide, unfair labor practice cases, many of them related to unionization campaigns, were up by 20% over the previous year. That’s creating quite a caseload. Dietz said her rookie investigators are handling 20 unfair labor practice charges at a time; her experienced investigator has 40 to 50 cases. And her office has over 200 open unfair labor practice charges, double the caseload it had two years ago.
Making matters worse, there’s a shortage of federal administrative law judges to hear cases—like when an employer fires a worker for supporting a union. For the Portland region, the soonest a trial can be scheduled right now is August.
The budget situation is so dire that there’s been discussion of staff furloughs, though Dietz said that’s off the table for now. But national union leaders are concerned that with Republicans back in charge of the House, it will be very difficult to get further increases for the agency.
For Dietz—a dedicated agent who believes in her agency’s mission—it’s a tough pill to swallow, but she asked local labor union officers to understand that the local office is doing all it can.
“I’ve been at the NLRB 17 years now,” Dietz said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”