Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka appeared together Wednesday at a Center for American Progress event to call on the U.S. Senate to move forward on confirming President Obama's nominations to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). If those confirmations fail to be approved, the board would fall below a quorum on Aug. 1 and no longer would be able to do its job of protecting America's workers.
The NLRB is important because it protects all workers, not just those in unions, said Trumka. "We can’t let a few obstructionist senators hide behind excuses and let a law enforcement agency that protects working people shut down," he said.
Kathleen Von Eitzen is a baker at Panera Bread in Michigan who spoke at the CAP event. She is one of 18 bakers who voted to be represented by the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers (BCTGM) amid opposition from Panera. The NLRB ruled in favor of Von Eitzen and her co-workers, but their case is in limbo because of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit's ruling on President Obama's NLRB recess appointments. Meanwhile, her fellow workers have had their hours cut, evaluations negatively impacted and even have been fired. But Von Eitzen refuses to give up the fight. She says the NLRB is key.
"We need our union," she said. "We need a National Labor Relations Board to protect our rights. My co-workers in Michigan and working people all over who want a voice on the job are counting on the Senate to do what’s right and confirm the nominees to the NLRB."
Republicans are filibustering appointments to four government agencies that protect workers' and consumers' rights: the NLRB, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Department of Labor. This obstruction keeps them from functioning properly. "It benefits Big Business," Trumka said. "It doesn't benefit workers, whether they are union or nonunion." Corporate America, he said, benefits from this obstruction, and 79% of Republican contributions come from Big Businesses that benefit from these agencies being hampered.
Current law protecting workers' rights is too weak and too slow and Republicans want to weaken that even further. Trumka said that the rest of the civilized world has much stronger protections for workers and it's time the United States joins them.
During the current economic crisis, workers have seen falling wages and increasing costs, Merkley said. Protections for workers have to be in place and workers have to have the ability to join together. "We the people," he said, "is being replaced by 'we the powerful'."
There has to be a very clear path on executive nominations in the Senate, but Republicans aren't playing fair. Merkley said:
This has been Lucy and the football with Charlie Brown...we have to have a clear path to an up-and-down vote.
Trumka rejected Republican claims that recess appointments are somehow invalid, noting that every president since Jimmy Carter has made recess appointments to the NLRB. The president had no choice but to make the appointments. "Their job [Republican senators] is to advise and consent, not negotiate and extort. There is no question that they are clearly abusing the system and stopping democracy from working."
Merkley said less than one-half of one chamber of the legislative branch is obstructing the actions of the executive branch that was recently re-elected by the public. He said frustration with Republicans is rising in the chamber and there might be enough outrage to make changing the filibuster rules possible. He noted that when Republicans were in power, they threatened to eliminate the filibuster and they have repeatedly violated the spirit of the Senate rules in order to block the president's appointments. Trumka agreed: "You have proven to us this isn't about the qualifications of the presidents' nominees, it's about the ability to obstruct."