AFL-CIO Boss to Harry Reid: Go Nuclear

Union bigwigs up pressure on Democrats to push nuclear option for NLRB noms

Richard Trumka / AP
July 10, 2013

Union bigwig Richard Trumka called on Harry Reid to "pull the trigger" on the nuclear option to push through two controversial members of the top labor watchdog.

Trumka, speaking at the Center for American Progress Action Fund on Wednesday, said that Reid should change Senate rules to require a majority vote to confirm President Barack Obama’s nominees rather than the current 60-vote threshold.

The AFL-CIO boss said the GOP is blocking the confirmation of sitting National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) members Sharon Block and Richard Griffin in order to protect corporate interests.

"This benefits probably big business, it doesn’t benefit workers, whether union or non-union," Trumka said. "Corporate America supports [the GOP] and they support corporate America."

The NLRB has had 39 recess appointments since the Carter administration, according to Trumka. Block and Griffin are the first to be recess appointed while the Senate was still in pro forma session. A federal court declared the appointments unconstitutional.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) has pledged to block the re-nominations of the pair because they ignored the court ruling.

McConnell accused Democrats of carrying water for big money donors in organized labor during a Tuesday floor speech.

"I know Washington Democrats are getting a lot of pressure from Big Labor union bosses and other far-left elements of their base to do this," he said. "These folks have told Democrats it’s time to pay up, and they don’t have much time for things like the democratic process or the rule of law."

The AFL-CIO spent more than $30 million on the 2012 election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, with almost all of that money going to Democrats.

Trumka told the Washington Free Beacon that that number "pales in comparison" to corporate spending "that doesn’t get reported." A 2012 Wall Street Journal analysis found that labor groups spent more than $1 billion on political campaigns between 2005 and 2011 using other metrics that go unreported.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D., Ore.) accused Republicans of trying to "disable the administration" by blocking the appointments, though he stopped short of saying "campaign donations are directly attributable" for GOP opposition. Merkley received $1.2 million from labor groups since 2010, including more than $275,000 for his 2014 campaign.

Merkley defended President Obama’s recess appointments while the Senate was in session because "functionally we were out of session." He also accused McConnell of violating a pair of "gentleman’s agreements" to confirm President Obama’s nominees without "obstruction" from the minority.

Obama and Reid reneged on a labor truce of their own when the Democrats re-nominated Block and Griffin to the board, according to a top Republican aide.

Republican staff members reached an agreement with Democratic staffers in January that the GOP would not attempt to seriously block NLRB nominations if Obama replaced Block and Griffin. Obama forced the confirmation battle by refusing to abide by the "silent agreement."

"We made it clear to the Democrats that if they were to re-nominate the two members who were unconstitutionally appointed that we would not accept them," the source said. "They could pick any two people out of the thousands of union attorneys that are in Obama’s orbit and we’d consider them on the merits."

Democrats have repeatedly said that the board will cease to function if the Senate does not confirm Obama’s five nominees, though it would not affect the regional NLRB offices that enforce labor laws for workers. The Republican aide, who spoke to the Washington Free Beacon on condition of anonymity, said that the confirmation battle does not have to be an all-or-nothing battle since only three board members are needed to run the NLRB.

"If Reid takes out the controversial recess appointees and submits the other three, then those three would get through Senate and operate the NLRB while the Democrats find two other people," the source said. "But they’re not going to do that because that would mean a Republican majority; by their own line of reasoning they’re leaving workers unprotected because of politics."

Unions are ramping up the pressure on Democrats to go nuclear.

The Communication Workers of America threatened to withdraw support from Democrats who vote against the nuclear option. It spent more than $5.85 million on the 2012 election. Trumka would not say whether the AFL-CIO, the 8th largest campaign contributor in the country, would follow suit.

Reid will meet with the Democratic caucus on Thursday to decide on potential rule changes.