What Is the Role of the National Labor Relations Board?
By Geoff Mirelowitz
June 21, 2022 — Three days ago, World-Outlook published “Amazon Seeks to Prevent Certification of Union at NY Warehouse.” The article reported on the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) hearing considering Amazon’s objections to certifying the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) as the choice of workers at JFK8, the company’s 8,000-worker fulfillment center in Staten Island, New York. The ALU won a landmark victory in a union representation election there on April 1.
Amazon’s goal is to overturn the election results. If that is not possible, the corporate giant hopes to delay the NLRB’s final certification of the ALU as the bargaining agent for JFK8 workers, thus weakening ALU’s efforts to win a decent contract there.
The NLRB’s Region 29 Brooklyn office, which oversaw the election, ruled the ALU the winner. The federal labor board, however, and the entire process of “mediation” it supervises, has been no friend of labor since the U.S. government established the agency over 85 years ago.
How the NLRB was established
In 1935, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) signed the Wagner Labor Relations Act into law, which set up the NLRB. Congress passed the bill as a radicalization of the U.S. working class was spreading across the country.
The same year trade unionists established the Committee of Industrial Organizations (CIO) within the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The CIO founders’ intention was to unionize millions of workers in previously unorganized mass production industries. These included steel, auto, and many others. Subsequently the CIO left the AFL when the hidebound AFL officials proved an obstacle to this effort.
The rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations as a mass organization of workers was a giant advance for the U.S. labor movement.
The book Labor’s Giant Step by Art Preis tells the history of those struggles.
Three powerful, successful strikes in 1934 opened the door to these developments: the Teamster battles that made Minneapolis a union town; the Toledo Auto-Lite strike led by a precursor of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union; and the San Francisco general strike led by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).
Farrell Dobbs, then a young worker in a Minneapolis coal yard, with no previous union experience, emerged as a leader of the Teamster battles. He later became the central organizer of the 11-state campaign that organized tens of thousands of over-the-road drivers into the Teamsters and made it a genuinely industrial union. Dobbs later became the National Secretary of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP).
Dobbs wrote the Teamster series, four books documenting the Teamster struggles. There Dobbs drew the key political lessons from the 1930s battles. Lessons that are invaluable for union militants and other workers then and now who see the need to organize and use union power to confront the employers’ assault on our standard of living, working conditions, and democratic rights.
In Teamster Politics, the third volume of the series, Dobbs concisely explained the origins of the NLRB.
NLRB mediation proved costly to the workers
“In 1935 Roosevelt had signed into law the Wagner Labor Relations Act, which required employers to bargain with trade unions representing a majority of their employees,” Dobbs said. “The directive was not as altruistic as it might appear on the surface. Primarily, it was designed to help assure that the insurgent masses of hitherto unorganized workers would come under the domination of the AFL (and later CIO) officials with a class-collaborationist outlook.
“As a further means of curbing rank-and-file militancy, the law also established a National Labor Relations Board. Its key purpose was to mediate industrial conflicts, and that function was generally carried out in tricky ways that proved costly to the workers. In addition, a category termed ‘unfair labor practices’ was introduced. Ostensibly, charges of that nature were to be directed only at the bosses, but it didn’t take long in practice for such accusations to be leveled against organized labor as well.”
In Teamster Power, the second volume of his series, Dobbs added that the “unfair labor practices” provision also “served as a means to put such disputes under the jurisdiction of the federal courts.”
He continued: “Class collaborationist union officials hailed the Wagner Act as ‘Labor’s Magna Charta.’ This of course was utter nonsense. Their lavish praise of the new law was really an expression of hope that it would enable them to keep the workers suckered into reliance on the capitalist government as a substitute for use of union power against the bosses.”
In the final volume, Teamster Bureaucracy, Dobbs explained how the labor bureaucracy collaborated with the Democratic Party over the next few years to tame the upsurge.
“The misleaders were able to prevent the labor upsurge from going beyond the unionization of the unorganized mass production workers into the CIO although much more was possible at the height of its energies,” Dobbs said. “They managed to tie the new industrial union movement to the Democratic Party, beginning with the 1936 national elections, thereby keeping the workers mired in capitalist politics. By mid-1937, class collaborationist norms were reestablished to a large extent in setting trade union policy. Reliance on help from the Roosevelt administration was substituted for use of the union’s full power.”
Timely lessons for today
The problems Dobbs described have substantially worsened since then, resulting in the weakness we see in organized labor today.
Many working people hope the victory the ALU scored at JFK8 signals a change and a new beginning for organized labor. This makes the lessons Dobbs outlined especially timely now.
The June 18 World-Outlook article reported on Amazon’s renewed attacks on the ALU. These include firing of key union organizers and obstructionist tactics at the NLRB hearing.
How has the NLRB responded to Amazon’s objections? It has set aside 56 days to hear the company’s challenge! There appears to be no deadline set for the end of the hearing.
As World-Outlook reported, “The ALU is urging its supporters to watch the proceedings online as much as possible. The hearing is accessible via Zoom at this link (Meeting ID: 161 292 3146; Passcode: 968885).”
Once Amazon exhausts this first round of delaying tactics, the NLRB will take whatever time it chooses to issue a decision. Should it rule in favor of the ALU, Amazon can file a series of appeals that will delay the decision even further. And, as Dobbs explained, ultimately the employer can take the case to federal court, where the litigation can take years to resolve.
At the June 13 press conference in Phoenix, Arizona, interim ALU president Chris Smalls said, “We know one thing: we don’t want this to be a long, drawn-out process. We won the election. Amazon needs to come to the table” to negotiate a contract.
Amazon has made it clear it has no intention of doing so unless it is compelled to do it. Waiting for the government to force the employer to negotiate may very well be the “long drawn-out process” ALU members want to avoid. The delay is aimed at weakening the union and eroding the fighting spirit of JFK8 workers — and their supporters — that produced the union’s victory.
The only alternative is to organize and use union power both on the job at the warehouse, as ALU organizers have indicated they are trying to do, and more broadly. If the union can find the ways and means to accomplish that goal, the fight for union recognition from Amazon and for a contract need not wait for the NLRB or whatever a federal court ultimately rules.
In the situation that exists in the U.S. labor movement today, the ALU cannot ignore or avoid the NLRB process. Despite the shackles mediation aims to impose on union power, the ALU has won important victories. It convinced thousands of fellow workers to sign union authorization cards despite all the obstacles Amazon put up. It secured the right to a representation election. It beat the odds, won a historic vote for the union, and inspired fellow workers across the United States and, in fact, the world.
The ALU is now effectively answering Amazon’s false claims at the labor board hearing. It continues correctly to pursue its own unfair labor practice charges against Amazon, demanding reinstatement of union organizers that management has fired illegally. Some earlier such efforts have already been successful.
Neither the ALU nor workers organizing in any other industry or workplace, however, need be limited to making arguments to the NLRB or the courts. To achieve workers’ goals, the union can simultaneously mobilize the ranks of its members and supporters to exert union power on the job and in the streets.
1979 Newport News ‘unfair labor practice’ strike
One example of this strategy took place in 1979 when members of the United Steel Workers of America (USWA) struck for union recognition at the giant Newport News shipyard. In 2018 the Newport News Daily Press recalled the history in an article headlined, “Steelworkers mark 40 year at shipyard, recall violent strike.”
“This year marks the 40th anniversary of the vote that created United Steelworkers Local 8888, today a staple of shipyard life,” the paper noted. “Union members are marking the milestone with events throughout the year.
“The vote to authorize the union took place on Jan. 31, 1978. It set off a celebration that was short-lived.
“The company, then owned by Tenneco, protested the election results, as did the Peninsula Shipbuilders Association, the yard’s old union. It dragged on, and after a year had passed, the United Steelworkers had had enough. On Jan. 31, 1979, exactly one year after that successful vote, the union voted to strike.
“The walkout lasted nearly three months.”
The strike turned violent when cops attacked striking workers and conducted an assault on the union hall. Despite this workers won union recognition and subsequently a contract at the shipyard.
This is only one example of the rich history of the U.S. working class that has been largely buried precisely because these lessons are relevant to working people today.
‘A parting injunction’
In summing up the victory the Teamsters won in the over-the-road organizing drive in the 1930s, Dobbs referred to “a parting injunction” he offered to fellow workers who were becoming “increasingly responsive to a class struggle outlook.”
“When we separated after a meeting,” Dobbs said, he told them, “Don’t arbitrate.” He then elaborated: “It was intended to drill into them an instinct to cling tenaciously to their freedom of decision, never letting it be taken from the union’s hands by a so-called neutral party.”
The union leader continued: “Another slogan was invoked,” he said, “when a local leader asked if the union could do one or another thing. My opening reply was usually, ‘You can do anything you’re big enough to do.’ Then we would discuss more concretely just how strong the union’s position was in a given situation. This helped to instill in the workers a reflex tendency to always think in terms of using their class power.”
Geoff Mirelowitz is a retired railroad worker who was a switchman on Burlington Northern Santa Fe for over 17 years and a member of SMART Local 845 in Seattle. In 1979, at the time of the Newport News shipyard strike, Mirelowitz was a member of United Steel Workers of America (USWA) Local 2609 at Bethlehem Steel in Sparrows Point, Maryland; he helped organize solidarity the Sparrows Point USWA local extended to shipyard workers in Newport News.
Categories: Labor Movement / Trade Unions