By Tom Conway
USW International President
Time and again over the past few years, as he fought to protect his co-workers at Bobcat’s North Dakota plant, William Wilkinson faced two obstacles.
One was the company. The other was a federal government that, instead of fulfilling its duty to safeguard workers, helped management exploit them.
Within hours of taking office on Jan. 20, however, President Joe Biden began to level the playing field and harness the strength of working people to tackle the huge challenges confronting the country.
Biden understands that only with a healthy, empowered workforce can America end the COVID-19 pandemic and rebuild the economy.
So in one of his first official acts, Biden fired Peter Robb, the union-busting corporate lawyer who wormed his way into the general counsel’s job at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and then used his power to turn the agency against the people it was created to protect.
Robb, who directed agency field offices and set policy, thwarted organizing drives and advocated stripping workers of long-standing union protections. He determined employers had no obligation to bargain with unions seeking COVID-19 protections and even sided with employers who fired workers for voicing coronavirus safety concerns.
“Board charges used to scare the company. Now, they mean nothing,” said Wilkinson, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 560, who sensed Robb’s anti-worker animus rigging the scales in numerous cases that he filed on behalf of his members.
“No matter what, your case is dead before you get there,” Wilkinson said, recalling one dispute in which the NLRB refused to make Bobcat turn over financial data the union needed to assess a health insurance hike. “It’s Bizarro World. They have no interest in wrongdoing or whatever problem brought you there.”
Righting the NLRB will involve not only selecting a new, capable general counsel but, in a change from the former administration, installing board members committed to upholding labor law.
Biden’s housecleaning will ensure the agency returns to its mission of protecting labor rights, such as ensuring that the growing number of Americans who want to join unions — including employees of Amazon, Google and transportation services — can do so without harassment or retaliation.
A properly functioning NLRB will reset the scales and once again bar corporations from changing working conditions in the middle of a contract.
It will roll back recent, unfair rulings making it easier for corporations to oust unions, discipline workers without recourse to their union representatives and misclassify employees as contractors with fewer labor rights. In classifying SuperShuttle drivers as contractors, for example, the board denied many exploited workers the chance to form a union and build better lives.
An overhauled NLRB will have to reassure workers that they’ll get a fair hearing when they bring contract violations and other offenses to the board.
“We just want to be equal,” Wilkinson said. “I’m not asking for special treatment.”
When the coronavirus struck, Wilkinson and many other workers across the country had to fight their employers to implement common-sense safety measures like social distancing and sanitizer stations.
Some refused, exposing their communities to needless risks and fueling the virus’ spread. All the while, the previous administration callously refused to ramp up workplace protections or hold corporations accountable.
But in an executive order declaring worker health and safety to be a “national priority,” Biden quickly unshackled the agencies charged with protecting Americans on the job.
The order requires the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) — an agency that Wilkinson described as having “gone completely corporate” like the NLRB in recent years — to update COVID-19 safety guidelines for workplaces.
Biden also directed OSHA, whose leadership allowed investigations to lag and inspector positions to go vacant before the pandemic, to scrutinize its enforcement program and train resources on COVID-19 hotspots.
And under Biden’s order, both OSHA and the Mine Safety and Health Administration must quickly study the need for emergency, temporary infectious disease standards that would require employers to take certain steps to keep workers safe on the job.
The USW and other unions demanded these standards for nearly a year, realizing that many employers will act responsibly only when regulators hold their feet to the fire. Workers need these protections more than ever as America’s COVID-19 death toll eclipses 431,000, new variants of the virus begin hitting the nation and Biden accelerates the vaccine rollout that his predecessor botched.
To accomplish all of this vital work as quickly as possible, it’s essential to have battle-tested experts at the helm.
That’s why Biden tapped James S. Frederick, formerly the assistant director and principal investigator for the USW’s Health, Safety and Environment Department, to serve as one of the top leaders at OSHA.
During 25 years on the front lines of occupational safety, Frederick doggedly pursued answers to workplace tragedies and advocated for some of the most important safety regulations that OSHA is responsible for enforcing today.
But it isn’t just technical knowledge that prepared Frederick for his new role. His empathy for injured workers and bereft families will give a fresh urgency to OSHA’s work.
“What a super win to get a Steelworker in there,” said Wilkinson, who praised the USW’s health and safety programs. “He’ll do a good job for working people. He’ll do it right.”
Working people took so many hits the past four years that Wilkinson felt the country’s foundation crumbling.
But with Biden in their corner, he believes workers will have the support they need to steer through the pandemic and build a stronger America.
“What he’s done so far is totally a morale changer,” Wilkinson said. “If Biden holds to his promises, I see the middle class growing, along with unions. That’s more jobs and higher wages for all working people.”