By Tom Conway
USW International President
When managers at National Steel installed hidden cameras at an Illinois mill to guard against theft, they ended up being the ones on the wrong side of the law.
The United Steelworkers (USW) reported the illicit surveillance to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), and in a 2001 order that remains a major check on corporate abuses, the agency ordered an end to the secret spying.
To USW Local 1899 President Dan Simmons, that still-important case is a constant reminder of how much Americans need the NLRB to ensure justice in the workplace. So he’s pleased that after veering wildly off course during the previous administration, the agency under Joe Biden is getting back to its vital mission of enforcing labor rights.
On his first day as president in January, Biden fired the board’s general counsel, Peter Robb, a corporate pawn who used his powerful position to turn the agency against the very people it was created to help.
With the support of the Democratic-controlled Senate, Biden replaced Robb with Jennifer Abruzzo, a respected labor lawyer who’s expected to bring a fair-minded approach to a role that includes overseeing NLRB field offices, prosecuting unfair labor practice charges and prioritizing cases brought to the five-member board.
Biden and Senate Democrats also put new members on the board, eliminating a pro-business majority that, during the previous four years, issued a string of decisions that eroded workers’ rights and rigged the system for employers.
“You knew what their agenda was,” Simmons, who represents about 1,800 workers at U.S. Steel and a handful of other companies in Illinois, said of Robb and the previous board. “It was not looking to protect labor or working people. It was clearly driven by corporations.”
Simmons, who played a role in fighting the illegal surveillance scheme at now-defunct National Steel, recalled that the company refused to tell the union the whereabouts of the cameras after word about the clandestine surveillance efforts leaked out. The union filed a complaint with the NLRB amid concerns that the company watched workers even while they took medications or made phone calls during breaks.
Since helping to win that case, Simmons has relied on the agency many times while enforcing contracts and labor rights. But he said he “never would have considered” bringing important matters to the NLRB during the previous administration because he knew Robb and his right-wing cronies looked for cases they could exploit to further chip away workers’ rights.
“We avoided them,” he said.
Abruzzo intends to rebalance the scales. Whereas Robb helped to thwart union drives and expand corporate power, Abruzzo recently sent a memo to field offices laying out her plan for trying to reverse recent board decisions holding workers down.
That includes the board’s 2019 ruling that drivers for SuperShuttle, the airport transportation company, are independent contractors rather than employees entitled to form unions. That decision dealt a setback not only to poorly treated van drivers but to workers throughout the gig economy.
And against the backdrop of COVID-19, more and more companies in the technology, delivery, hospitality and other sectors are relying on gig workers so they can not only skimp on wages and benefits but exercise absolute control over working conditions.
The SuperShuttle decision robs these workers of the ability to band together for better pay, affordable health care and a voice on the job. Reversing it is essential for building a fairer, stronger economy.
Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and created the NLRB decades ago specifically to encourage workers to form unions. It wanted to capitalize on the power of collective bargaining to forge a stronger middle class and give ordinary Americans a share in the nation’s prosperity.
Robb and the previous board subverted those ends to give corporations the upper hand. Now, among the dozens of recent board decisions in Abruzzo’s sights are those that not only threw up roadblocks intended to thwart union drives but strip workers of power they achieve when organizing campaigns succeed.
In 2019, for example, the board issued a decision enabling employers to unilaterally change working conditions in the middle of contracts, making a mockery of the bargaining process. In another case that year, the board made it easier for corporations to kick out unions just as collective bargaining agreements expire — a time when workers especially need the stability their unions provide.
Amid the crush of devastating decisions, Simmons recalled thinking that the NLRB “is out to get me” and other workers.
Adding insult to injury, the previous board stacked the deck against workers even as a growing number — in a wide variety of fields — clamored to join unions.
The demand for representation, increasing even before COVID-19, soared during the pandemic as Americans saw how unions helped their members negotiate affordable health care, paid sick leave and workplace safety protections.
Now, Simmons anticipates that Abruzzo and the new board will level the playing field, enabling workers to once again exercise their labor rights and leverage the benefits unions provide.
But the four years before Biden took office continue to haunt him.
The unprecedented assault on workers during that period reminded Simmons of how important it is to continually press for stronger labor rights and remain vigilant for any attempt to undercut them.
It’s too easy to lose what workers spent decades building.
“You can’t become complacent,” Simmons said.