June 23, 2018
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Ensuring the future of the National Labor Relations Board

By Jim Sutherland, Special to the BDN

Washington is stuck in gridlock. Far too many pieces of legislation and nominees to fill critical positions cannot move forward because, instead of a majority being able to vote and move something onto the Senate floor, it takes 60 votes.

Our senior Sen. Susan Collins has often broken with her party to allow legislation and nominations to go to a vote of the full Senate. She doesn’t always vote for what moves forward, but she does not use the power of the filibuster to stop a vote from happening. That’s an important quality in a leader — the ability to respect the process, no matter what your ultimate agenda is. Collins should be applauded for that.

We are facing a time when, for one agency, Collins’ vote is critical.

If no nominations are moved forward soon, in August, there will be no members on the National Labor Relations Board. The board and the laws it oversees will be paralyzed, with terrible consequences for Maine workers.

For decades, American labor law helped working people come together to have a voice on the job, which in turn gave them a say in our economy and in our politics and public life. This freedom to organize, which is enshrined in the National Labor Relations Act, helped produce the greatest period of sustained and broad prosperity in our country’s history.

Everyone did better.

Broadly shared prosperity is needed once again. In order to rebuild our economy and level the playing field for all working people — union and non-union — the law protecting workers’ rights must be enforced. That’s the role of the National Labor Relations Board — and it needs to work.

The less the board works, the more America’s economy falls out of whack, as we see today with record inequality and a shrinking middle class.

That doesn’t mean protecting the rights of working people as opposed to the rights of employers. It means ensuring the NLRB’s ability to promote commerce by governing the relationship between workers and employers.

But currently the NLRB is under unprecedented attack by corporate lobbyists and those who want to weaken the board’s ability to protect workers who choose to organize and form unions on the job.

While this issue may not grace the front page of every newspaper, the effects are and will continue to be felt at home here in Maine and across the nation.

President Barack Obama has put forward a full bipartisan slate of nominees. The Senate’s failure to confirm these nominees can cause real consequences in real people’s lives.

Earlier this month, a small group of Fiber Microwave Technicians at Central Maine Power organized a union using the processes laid out in the National Labor Relations Act. The election that they won was supervised by the National Labor Relations Board. They were seeking greater economic security and a greater voice about their future. How would their rights on the job have been enforced if the NLRB was not functioning?

Maine has developed a similar system for public and other employees excluded from the national law. Our Maine Labor Relations Board is structured in a similar way, but we don’t have problems with appointments to the board, and it is available for our citizens and our cities and towns.

Unless the nominations for this board move forward, working people will have nowhere to go to have the National Labor Relations Act enforced.

Justice delayed is justice denied, and justice to working people is being seriously denied because of the instability being forced upon the NLRB. But if the nominations are not even allowed to come to the floor of the Senate for an up or down vote there can be no pretense that there is justice at all.

Maine working people should not be left in limbo.

Responsibility for a functioning NLRB that working people need and deserve is now up to the U.S. Senate. Hopefully, Maine Sens. Collins and Angus King will be part of moving the process forward. Once it makes it to the floor, the Senate should act quickly to confirm the president’s full slate of nominees.

Jim Sutherland has worked at Lincoln Paper and Tissue for 39 years and is the financial secretary of United Steelworkers Local 4-0396.

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