Griffin’s Baggage

Controversial NLRB member worked for union repeatedly accused of racial discrimination

Richard Griffin, NLRB logo
May 30, 2013

Controversial National Labor Relations Board member Richard Griffin previously worked for a union that has been sanctioned for racial discrimination.

Griffin worked as a lawyer for the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE), which represents 400,000 people in the building industry, for nearly three decades, ultimately becoming the union’s general counsel in 1994. Several union locals ran into legal troubles for their ties to organized crime as well as allegations of discrimination during his tenure.

IUOE locals and the construction industry have a long history of troubling racial discrimination, according to Harry Alford, president of the National Black Chamber of Commerce.

"There is indeed racism in the construction trades, especially steel workers, pipefitters, and equipment operators," he said. "There’s definitely a legacy of discrimination."

He pointed to local 542, a Philadelphia chapter of IUOE, in particular. Federal courts and labor regulators have ruled that the union violated discrimination laws surrounding pay and work opportunities 17 times since 1971, including eight cases that occurred while Griffin worked for the union.

"Black participation in the trade industry over there is far below the black population in the city," Alford said. "They deny employment to blacks in these union halls … Philadelphia hasn’t gone far since [the Civil Rights Movement]."

IUOE did not return calls for comment.

The union has battled against its reputation for discrimination in other instances. In December 2007, an IUOE member working at the Port of Portland was suspended for 20 days without pay because he had hung a noose in his workplace.  The union defended the man, arguing that he was unaware of the noose’s racial implications.

Griffin has not been directly involved in any of these cases, but his tenure at the union has caused controversy at the NLRB. Workers in the Los Angeles IUOE filed  suit on January 8 alleging that Griffin tried to cover up an embezzlement from the union pension fund. The House Education and Workforce Committee launched an investigation into those charges in May.

"We are deeply concerned by allegations that Richard Griffin, while serving as General Counsel of the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE), participated in a conspiracy to conceal the embezzlement of union funds from IUOE Local 501 and its members, as well as deprive those union members of a fair and honest election," committee chairman John Kline (R., Minn.) said in a letter to White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler.

Griffin has staked his nomination to the board on his experience with the union, as well as his involvement with the NLRB.

"These experiences—as an NLRB attorney, as a union lawer, and as the general counsel of a mid-sized enterprise [the union pension fund]—give me a useful and, I believe, fairly unique perspective on the cases coming before the board," he said at his May 16 confirmation hearing.

Griffin faces an uphill battle in his quest for confirmation. He passed out of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee last Wednesday along a party line vote and faces skepticism from Republicans because of how he arrived at the board.

President Barack Obama recess-appointed Griffin and fellow Democrat Sharon Block to the board in January 2012 while the Senate was in pro forma session. The Washington, D.C., Court of Appeals declared the appointments unconstitutional in January 2013. Griffin and Block ignored the court and have issued more than 200 NLRB decisions since the ruling.

Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, ranking committee Republican, vowed to oppose Griffin’s nomination at the hearing.

"My problem is not with their qualifications, my problem is they decided to keep issuing rulings … after the court said they were unconstitutional," he said.

Griffin’s nomination to the NLRB will go to the full Senate in July.