Career staffers at the federal labor board have launched a broad effort against a series of proposals made to revamp the agency by the board’s prosecutor, according to letters and internal memos obtained by Bloomberg Law.
Two groups of senior managers and a pair of organizations representing the National Labor Relations Board’s front-line staff sent separate letters to NLRB General Counsel Peter Robb late last week. One of the NLRB unions told Robb that some of his case processing and regional office overhaul proposals demonstrate “an interest in destroying the Agency from the inside.”
The internal debate over the moves comes early in Robb’s tenure as the board’s top prosecutor. It could forebode ongoing tension between the former management-side attorney and staffers at the National Labor Relations Board.
A group of NLRB associate regional directors told Robb news of some of the possible moves “has caused general anxiety and a discernible drop in morale in the field.” Separate groups of regional directors and regional attorneys also criticized some of the proposals.
The NLRB declined to comment on the letters. Robb has said that the board has to consider various ways to increase efficiency as a result of possible budget cuts and a steady decline in the number of cases the agency handles each year. He told a group of lawyers in New York last month that some board processes have not changed since at least the early 1980s.
Attorneys on a American Bar Association labor committee also criticized some of the moves in their own letter to Robb.
Processing, Regional Changes
Robb, President Donald Trump’s pick for general counsel of the board, is considering changes that may include eliminating or combining certain field offices, stripping the agency’s regional managers of their senior executive status, and shifting more decision-making to his Washington, D.C., office.
Robb also sent a list of 59 suggestions to agency workers to overhaul how the agency processes unfair labor practice complaints and union elections. That includes shortening investigation times; imposing strict time limits on how soon parties must respond to certain requests before dismissal; and giving investigators more authority to independently dismiss cases, approve settlements, or withdraw a union’s complaint. Dismissal, settlements, and withdrawals currently require approval by a regional director.
The general counsel asked agency staffers and managers to weigh in on some of the proposals, which prompted the letters from employee groups representing the board’s regional directors, assistant regional directors, regional attorneys, and much of its front-line staffers.
We “very much appreciate your solicitation of our input and continue to hope you are sincere in your stated willingness to consider out thoughts and ideas” on how to “best serve the public during these times of fiscal straits,” the regional attorneys wrote.
The groups also said they agreed with some of the proposals, including a continued emphasis on the early resolution of cases through settlement.
Proposals Would ‘Contravene’ Agency Mission
The agency regional directors—senior managers who report to the political appointees who head the board in Washington—urged Robb to “reread” the first section of the National Labor Relations Act, which contains a statement of the agency’s mission to protect workers’ rights and encourage collective action by overseeing union election and adjudicating unfair labor practice complaints.
Each of the letters expresses concern that Robb’s proposals would hamper that central goal. “Adopting measures that result in efficient resolution of cases but contravenes the mission of the Act is a hallow accomplishment,” the RDs wrote.
Some members of the business and management community have defended Robb’s proposals.
“This is an agency that’s just not used to change,” Randy Johnson, a former Chamber of Commerce lobbyist who runs Seyfarth Shaw’s government relations team, told Bloomberg Law shortly after Robb’s proposals were made public. “Any little bit of change and trying to move the ship in a different direction is going to be strongly resisted, but that’s what good leaders do.”
Interagency Beef Implicates Budget
Workers at agency headquarters have also taken their gripes about a hiring freeze and other cost-savings measures that Robb and the NLRB chairman Marvin Kaplan (R) plan to implement to Congress.
The union representing NLRB headquarters workers said the agency leaders—both Trump appointees—wrongly based the measures on White House budget requests, instead of the funding actually provided to the agency by congressional budget figures. The president’s budget proposal for the agency last year was much lower than what Congress actually appropriated, and the same scenario is widely expected to play out again this year.
The NLRB and other federal agencies are currently funded by a continuing resolution, set to expire March 23. Congress is widely expected to eventually extend that funding through the rest of the fiscal year. Still, one former agency official said the board often takes a conservative approach to spending in situations in which the full year’s appropriation hasn’t been set.
Trump Appointee Acting Fast
Robb reversed or selected for review Dec. 4 a number of initiatives that were put in place by his Democratic predecessor.
The move came just weeks after his confirmation in November 2017. That memo was followed by Robb saying during a conference call that he was considering slimming down the agency’s regional field operations, and another laying out the 59 proposals to revamp case processing.
Each of those moves by Robb has been met with immediate opposition from Democratic lawmakers and worker advocates. But the latest wave of opposition is coming from inside and includes both general staff and the most senior officials at the agency other than the political appointees at the helm.
Fifty-six retired regional directors also sent a Feb. 6 letter opposing Robb’s reorganization proposals for field offices. The ABA letter was sent by the current and former union co-chairs of the Labor and Employment Law Section’s Committee on Practice and Procedure Before the NLRB and represents only the views of the authors.