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Union leaders are 'frustrated' with Democrats as key nominee awaits a vote

"Where do workers turn?" one union leader asked. "The most frustrating thing is the Senate is controlled by the Democrats. And they’re supposed to make it a priority."
Image: Chuck Schumer
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., speaks with reporters at the Capitol on April 18. J. Scott Applewhite / AP file

WASHINGTON — Union leaders, facing a pivotal summer, are becoming increasingly worried that Democratic leadership in Congress is not prioritizing a critical confirmation to the National Labor Relations Board, the entity tasked with ensuring fair labor practices and workplace democracy. 

With Hollywood on strike, and UPS workers potentially joining them, three union leaders told NBC News that Democrats are lacking urgency in pushing through President Joe Biden’s nomination of Gwynne Wilcox, the first and only Black woman to serve on the NLRB since its inception in 1935, for a second term.

“We are frustrated by the lack of action by the Senate — the Democratic majority — since Biden took office to move these critically important nominations that impact working people,” Matthew Biggs, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers union, told NBC News on Thursday. “We want Wilcox to move and to move before the recess.”

Wilcox’s term expires in August and the NLRB is already down one member, after its chairman, Trump-nominated John F. Ring, departed in December at the conclusion of his term. And the Senate has just four working days left in Washington before a lengthy August break.

If the board dwindles to three out of five members, union leaders said, it would be effectively hamstrung from implementing worker-forward policies.

“More or less, it means whatever precedent is in place, whatever rulings are in place, everything gets kind of frozen,” said Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union. “It’s in the interest of workers, and certainly in the interest of the unions that workers have, to have a functioning board with good, strong, pro-worker advocates. The NLRB is supposed to make it easier for workers to organize, not harder.”

To keep Wilcox’s role from lapsing, the Senate would need to confirm her nomination by the end of July, an assurance Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., gave union leaders and relevant Senate aides several weeks ago, according to multiple people directly involved in the conversations.

“Sen. Schumer is committed to working to confirm as many nominees as possible,” a spokesperson for Schumer said. “Gwynne Wilcox is clearly an important one and we will get her confirmed soon.”

The spokesperson also disputed that a commitment of any kind was made to get Wilcox confirmed ahead of the August break.

The AFL-CIO emphasized the importance of getting Wilcox confirmed but expressed confidence in Senate Democratic leadership to get it done. “The NLRB plays a critical role in workers’ ability to organize, which is why it’s so important to get this confirmation vote across the finish line,” said AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler. “I know that Ms. Wilcox’s confirmation is a top priority for Senator Schumer and I have no doubt he will bring her nomination up for a vote as soon as possible.”

Wilcox was confirmed for her first term in 2021 largely along party lines. Earlier this month, she was successfully reported out of committee with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, offering the sole Republican vote to advance her. Vulnerable Democrats up for re-election in 2024 are being lobbied to oppose her, setting up a potentially contentious confirmation vote on the Senate floor.

Wilcox’s term ends Aug. 27. If she’s not confirmed by then, Biggs said “there’s no doubt” it will have a negative impact on unions’ ability to protect workers; the Senate is not scheduled to return to Washington until Sept. 5. “If Wilcox is not confirmed, it will have a negative impact without a doubt on the ability of workers for their rights to be protected … because the NLRB for all intents and purposes won’t be able to operate the way it normally would otherwise,” Biggs said.

“Where do workers turn?” he added. “And the most frustrating thing is the Senate is controlled by the Democrats. And they’re supposed to make it a priority.”

Aside from the NLRB, which deals exclusively with the private sector, Biggs also raised concerns over the three-member Federal Labor Relations Authority, the agency that governs labor relations between the federal government and its employees.

The FLRA is currently operating with just two board members — one of them, a holdover from the Trump administration, and the other, a Biden appointee. The 1-1 split means that the status quo is largely preserved, with new rulings not likely.

The board found itself in the spotlight under then-President Donald Trump when it decertified a union of federal immigration judges in 2020. The Biden administration moved to restore the National Association of Immigration Judges’ union rights the following year, but the Senate had not yet confirmed Biden’s nominees to the board when the FLRA’s Trump-appointed majority voted in January 2022 to once again block the NAIJ’s union certification.

“If [the nominees were confirmed] in 2021, we wouldn’t have this trouble. The immigration judges would still have their union and we wouldn’t be in the predicament we’re in now,” Biggs said. 

A hearing in the Senate Homeland Security Committee has not yet been formally scheduled to consider Nancy Speight, Biden’s nominee for the third slot on the board, whom he nominated last month. “The Senate just received this nomination in June,” a committee spokesperson said. “We began the process and are looking forward to having a hearing this fall.”

“Everyone should have an interest in making sure that these positions get filled,” Biggs added. “These positions impact every worker in the country.”