One of President Barack Obama’s new National Labor Relations Board nominees dedicated her career at the AFL-CIO to doing away with secret ballots in labor elections—a tactic critics say would make it easier to unionize and expose employees to intimidation.
Nancy Schiffer spent nearly three decades as a union attorney in a career that took her from Detroit’s United Auto Workers to associate general counsel at the AFL-CIO, a Democratic power broker that spent $30 million on the 2012 election. Schiffer took the lead in many unionization efforts across the country and has spent the past few years trying to do away with the secret ballot in union elections.
"[Card check] is needed to address a severe violation of human rights," she testified to the House Education and Workforce Committee in 2004.
Schiffer has described the workplace as "an inherently coercive environment" that mandates public elections for unions.
Such an attitude caused alarm among some labor experts, including the Heritage Foundation’s James Sherk.
"She’s been put on the board so that unions can more easily organize," he said. "They’re taking someone from the AFL-CIO; there’s no pretense of impartiality in this nomination."
Schiffer was a major player in the Democrat’s 2007 push for card check legislation, appearing before the House Subcommittee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pension.
She lectured the committee about the vast number of employees who suffer "illegal retaliation for exercising their federal labor law rights," as well as the intimidation that companies engage in to win union certification votes.
The rampant intimidation that she described to the committee does not reflect the reality of union votes.
Unions won 66 percent of elections in 2009, the most recent data available, up from a 51 percent success rate in 1997, according to the NLRB, which oversees labor elections. However, elections declined from 3,261 in 1997 to 1,304 in 2009, a 60 percent decrease.
"They’re not bringing in enough members to replace those they’re losing to competition," Sherk said. "The reason for card check it to get rid of privacy and increase organization. There’s a lot of peer pressure and union pressure when the votes are held in public."
The NLRB does not have the authority to initiate card check legislation, but there are many ways that the board can manipulate regulations to ease organizing efforts. The NLRB can shorten the election process—a longtime goal of Schiffer—to hinder employer efforts to respond to union campaigns.
"The unions want to get election’s down to 14 days, so workers hear only side," Sherk said. "They don’t want an informed vote. They want a union vote."
The board also oversees decertification efforts filed by employees who want to leave the union. The acceptance rate of decertification petitions has plummeted under the Obama administration. The NLRB accepted 44 percent of employee petitions to hold decertification elections in FY 2010, down from 54 percent in FY2007.
House Republicans said Schiffer’s embrace of card check legislation indicates that the Obama administration will continue to enact backdoor regulations to advance the union agenda. Her approach to labor issues disturbed Rep. Phil Roe (R., Tenn.), who is sponsoring the Secret Ballot Protection Act in an effort to preempt card check.
"Since card check legislation failed to pass Congress when Democrats were in the majority in the House, many are concerned that the National Labor Relations Board will attempt to bypass the Congressional approval process," Roe said in a statement. "I strongly believe in preserving the individual worker’s right to vote by secret ballot before joining a union. As members of Congress, it is our job to prevent any assault on workers’ rights."
J. Justin Wilson, managing director of the Center for Union Facts, said Schiffer’s record does not give the appearance of the "fair labor arbiter" that NLRB members are expected to be.
"We’re going to see a continuance of the direction that the NLRB has been heading: overturning precedent and increased partisanship," he said. "The bottom line is that unions have given up on legislating and are turning to changing the rules of the game because that is the last best hope for unionizing."
Schiffer was handpicked to serve on the board by her former boss, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, on Tuesday afternoon after Obama withdrew the nominations of illegal board members Sharon Block and Richard Griffin. Trumka, after spending a week calling on the Democrats to invoke the nuclear option, was pleased with the outcome.
"A shimmer of light has broken through the extreme Republican obstruction in the Senate," he said in a statement Wednesday. "We thank President Obama for his leadership in ensuring that our country will have qualified public servants to run the Labor Department, the National Labor Relations Board, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau."
The selection process stirred outrage from union watchdogs. The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation said Trumka’s endorsement is a "clear warning sign" for employers and workers.
"Schiffer is an AFL-CIO’s associate general counsel and the Democrats go-to spokesperson to testify in favor of card check forced unionism," said NRTW president Mark Mix in a statement. "Richard Trumka is going to get exactly what he wants: A biased NLRB that will continue to run roughshod over worker freedom."