Changing the screws of a defunded and understaffed agency: Jennifer Abruzzo

This week’s United States of Labour rubric of Radu Stochiță deals with a frontrunner of labour struggle in the USA

Over the past months, the President of Amazon Labor United, Chris Smalls, has been dominating the press. Major media outlets have invited him over to speak on labor-related issues and magazines have dedicated covers or entire pages to his face, his story and the campaign he is fighting alongside Amazon workers. For people not familiar with US politics, he might seem to be the most important labor person in the country, receiving more attention than Secretary of Labor, Marty Welsh.

Solely based on media presence the assumption may not be wrong, but while Chris Smalls inspires people to stand for their rights, fight for a union and have a say in the company’s doings, there is someone that works behind the scenes to ensure that it is all possible.

Jennifer Abruzzo, General Counsel of National Labor Relations Board, does not get too much attention in the media. However, during her tenure, she has gotten in the way of employers fighting workers unionizing. In a Cornell University address, she spoke about the need of fighting the current exploitative dynamics, in order to give workers a bigger say at the table. She is not working neither to overthrow the system, nor to nationalize the industries. Instead, she wants to give workers the dignity they deserve under the current socio-economic conditions and to ensure that they can voice their demands as concerns without fear of retaliation.

Recently, the NLRB has partnered with the Department of Justice (DoJ) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in order to ensure that workers can engage freely on the labor market, without retaliation from the employers. In April 2022, Abruzzo issued a memorandum to all NLRB field offices, urging the cadres to find and sanction companies that force their employees to attend meetings where they spread anti-union propaganda. Such meetings are not a rarity when an employer finds out about the unionization efforts and companies such as Amazon have been found guilty of forcing their workers to attend a seminar on the reasons why they should not join a union.

In the early months of 2022, Abruzzo pushed the NLRB to return to the Joy Silk doctrine which allows a union to form once a majority of cards are signed.

Nowadays, in order to form a union, workers must either seek voluntary recognition from the employer – which happens seldom – or file for an election with the NLRB. Given that the agency is underfunded and has been functioning with the same budget as it did in 2014, not accounting for inflation, those elections can take a long time. Where there is a complicated situation, such as it was the case with Bates College in Maine deciding to form a union comprising every worker inside of the college, regardless of their profession, a decision might take up to a year to arrive. Under Joy Silk, the workers would form a union faster and the only way that the employers would be able to contest their desire to organize would be to argue that the process did not happen in “good faith”.

For her commitment of steering the NLRB in a direction that protects workers and empowers them directly, enemies were soon to show up and criticized her. The American Chamber of Commerce issued a statement classifying the NLRB’s action as part of a “radical agenda hostile to employers”.

She angered politicians on the conservative side, with Republican Virginia Foxx saying that she signed “a love-letter to unions”. It seems to be the case that regardless of anything she says or does, the pro-business groups find an enemy in her for simply arguing that workers must be given a seat at the table and that a boss cannot simply just fire its employees if they start unionizing.

That happened with Starbucks in the past, but a recent NLRB order the workers at a Memphis cafe to be reinstated, after the employer unlawfully dismissed then.

While the news outlets are dominated by NLRB battles fought between the agency and big employers, such as Amazon and Starbucks, Abruzzo pushed for another measure that will completely alter the way we think about labor relations. Losing a job might hinder someone’s ability of paying off their loans, taking care of their homes or covering living expenses. It is not an exception from the rule that people who find themselves between jobs go in debt to survive, to put gas in the car and food on the table. Up until now, an abusive employer who fired an employee, if found guilty, was responsible of either giving back the job or paying severances.

Under NLRB General Counsel Abruzzo, the employer might have to cover a great seat of costs that resulted from the abusive firing.

In June, Abruzzo issued a memorandum giving workers who have been fired unfairly the chance to ask their ex-employer to cover the costs of their late credit card fees, late rent or accumulated interest rates as a result of unemployment.

The June 2022 memorandum builds on the September 2021 memorandum which provide remedies such as: the reimbursement of organizational costs, reinstatement of unlawfully withdrawn bargaining proposals and reimbursement of collective-bargaining proposals. The September 2021 memorandum acknowledged that the employer should pay for the damage they have done on the organization level. The June 2022 one argues that the employer should pay for damage inflicted on one’s personal life, showing that abusively terminating one’s contract does not only affect one’s career, but their entire life.

While the Democrats are facing a serious battle in November, the current fights inside the NLRB will represent a serious battlefield in the following decades to come. Biden instated Abruzzo 10 months before the termination of Robb’s tenure – the Republican NLRB General Counsel. His move was unprecedented, showing that whoever controls the governmental agency that directly deals with labor will greatly impact the lives of working people.

Even if she rarely shows up in the press and her face does not throne on the magazine covers, General Counsel Abruzzo is the one angering the conservative think tanks, the pro-business groups and the law firms that benefit from union-busting fat contracts. While union battles are carried inside the coffeeshops and fulfillment centers, the governmental agencies is pushing the gears of a rusted system to make it easier for workers to stand up for themselves.

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