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Filling Labor Board Vacancies Opens Door To Unwinding Obama-era Policies


A Senate committee today approved two Trump administration nominees to fill vacant seats on the National Labor Relations Board. That means the stage is set now for a final confirmation vote. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports that filling the vacancies will open the door to an unwinding of many of the previous administration's labor policies.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Things have been pretty quiet at the federal Labor Relations Board with two vacant seats. But if President Trump's nominees, employment attorney William Emanuel and Marvin Kaplan, a federal agency lawyer, are confirmed, the board is expected to play a big role in advancing the Trump administration's labor policies. Speaking at today's hearing, Washington Democrat Patty Murray made that case.


PATTY MURRAY: I will be voting no on both of these nominees. I urge my colleagues, both Republicans and Democrats, to join me in that and do what President Trump is refusing to do and stand up for workers.

NOGUCHI: Tennessee Republican chairman Lamar Alexander countered that big labor policy shifts are nothing new.


LAMAR ALEXANDER: Board partisanship certainly didn't start under the last administration, but it became worse.

NOGUCHI: Indeed, the Obama administration's labor policies sought to broaden employee protections, making it easier to unionize and for workers to hold their employers accountable for workplace violations. One of the most significant rules made companies jointly liable for labor violations by their contractors and franchisees, a policy that posed a big challenge for big fast-food chains. The prior board also shortened the timetable to hold union elections and recognized graduate student teachers as employees of their universities. Nancy Hammer is senior government affairs counsel for the Society for Human Resource Management. She says many employers felt those policies went too far too fast.

NANCY HAMMER: During the Obama administration, the board was pretty active. And they were active in areas that they hadn't necessarily focused on before.

NOGUCHI: Such as protecting employees' use of social media for work-related communication. Other agencies have already started unwinding recent rules. This week, the Labor Department said it would reconsider a rule that would have increased the number of people that would have qualified for overtime pay. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is likely to reconsider a rule requiring electronic reporting of workplace injuries and illness. Amanda Wood is director of employment policy for the National Association of Manufacturers.

AMANDA WOOD: Employers are just looking forward to having an opportunity to have a critical look at some of these regulations and really look at the ones that made sense and which ones may not.

NOGUCHI: Christine Owens is executive director of the National Employment Law Project, a workers advocacy group. She argues the rollbacks in policies demonstrate how President Trump is doing industry's bidding while going back on his promises to workers.

CHRISTINE OWENS: I think it's reasonable to assume that much of what happened over the past eight years could be up for review and much of that on the chopping block with the wholesale change in leadership at all of these labor agencies.

NOGUCHI: Owens says that will create more policy ambiguity for employers and put workers at a disadvantage if they're counting on the benefits of some of those policies. Experts on both sides of the political spectrum agree that the changes will not be immediate. Agencies must consider cases and policies under a process that can take several years. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.


Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.