April 29, 2013

Former Chair of National Labor Relations Board Forecasts Future of U.S. Labor Law

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Wilma Liebman, former chair of the National Labor Relations Board, spoke Monday about “escalating controversy” and the divided political climate she said American labor law is facing.

The lecture, titled “Over the Cliff? What’s Next for American Labor Law,” addressed the “stagnant yet uncertain” nature of labor law and structural issues of the NLRB.

“Over the last few years, the NLRB has been thrust into strident and escalated controversy. The recent battles of the past few years have been exceptionally rigorous,” Liebman said.

She said that although the NLRB is intended to have five confirmed members, each nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate, there has not been a fully confirmed NLRB since August 2003.

According to Liebman, there has been countless controversy on Obama’s recess appointments — temporary appointments made when the Senate is not in session — to the NLRB. The Preventing Greater Uncertainty in Labor-Management Relations Act, introduced in March and passed April 12, would deem these recess appointments unconstitutional, Liebman said.

“This [act] would virtually obstruct the president from making recess appointments, and raises a significant issue of constitutional and presidential authority,” Liebman said.

Liebman also discussed the future of the NLRB as an administrative agency, given recent political difficulties and the contentious political climate.

“Beyond the rhetoric, [there] has been a really persistent battle to distract the [NLRB] from going about its regular business, [to] bring down its reputation, [to] defund it, and even an effort to defang it, though it is already weak,” Liebman said.

Liebman said she still believes that, 78 years after its creation, the NLRB is a “lightening rod” today.

“[The NLRB] is not exceptionally radical — in fact, it is not radical at all,” Liebman said. “It has been more active and dynamic, and I believe that [recent] reactions to it have been totally disproportionate to what the board will do and can do.”

Liebman also discussed the role of labor law in U.S. society over the past couple of decades and how it fares today.

“I think labor law is a subject in which our country has been very divided — it has been controversial from the start, and that’s why we haven’t had major labor law revision since 1947,” Liebman said. “There exists a tension between liberty and equality, rather than a reconciliation between the two.”

According to Liebman, labor law has become extremely contentious due to its inclusive nature of many social issues.

“Labor law brings it all together — it has issues of equality, issues of class, and issues of social and economic justice,” Liebman said. “It is emblematic of a much broader battle within our society, and particularly a battle of the government’s role in society.”

Liebman said she believes that labor law reform from the political realm is unlikely in the near future, and that a more likely agent of change will be social pressure and worker activism in the public arena.

Liebman called for the greater need to engage into partnerships — to bring together people from different realms of society — in order to remedy the deep societal divide about labor law.

“Only having one side pressing change is not constructive, but how do you bring together business, government, and academia?” Liebman said. “There are many cases where business and academia come together, but few where labor and business come together. Without it happening, we are never going to move from the status quo.”

Liebman said she believes that young people may be able to bring positive change to the future of labor law.

“The future may bring opportunities and challenges that we cannot anticipate today, but my hope is that students going into this field will carry with them a spirit of innovation that will help us transcend during this stagnant period,” Liebman said.

The lecture was sponsored by the School of Industrial and Labor Relations as the Michael Konvitz Memorial Lecture of 2013. The lecture series was made possible through the generosity of Irwin Jacobs ’56 and Joan Jacobs ’54, who also recently contributed $133 million to Cornell NYC Tech.

Original Author: Annie Bui