Biden Administration Takes Steps to Repair Trump’s Damage to NLRB, Department of Labor

March 3, 2021

President Biden grabbed headlines on his first day in office by first asking for the resignation of, then firing, the General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, Peter Robb.

Robb’s firing was the first time a president has fired the NLRB General Counsel, but Trump appointee Robb was a singular threat to the agency he oversaw. Robb had gone to great lengths to undermine the agency’s ability to enforce the law. Labor lawyer Brandon Magner wrote in his Labor Law Lite newsletter that “Robb’s mission in accepting the General Counsel job wasn’t just to reverse Obama Board decisions and create pro-management precedent. It was to destroy the agency as we currently know it.” Robb reduced the NLRB field staff by a quarter by refusing to fill vacant positions, and proposed a restructuring plan that, had it been implemented, would have centralized and politicized the agency, allowing anti-worker presidential administrations to effectively suspend the enforcement of labor law.

Beyond his attempts to do structural damage to the agency, Robb also pursued some of the most extreme pro-management, anti-union legal advocacy of any NLRB General Counsel in history, taking the side of corporate giants Uber and McDonald’s against the rights of their workers. For more background on Robb, retired labor lawyer Gabrielle Semel has written an overview of his tenure at the NLRB for Labor Notes.

The following Monday, Biden announced that he would appoint Peter Sung Ohr, an NLRB official from Chicago, as Acting General Counsel. From UE’s experience with the NLRB in Chicago, there is good reason to believe that Ohr will carry out the NLRB’s mission to protect workers’ rights instead of undermining it.

Biden’s picks for other key positions related to labor have been more mixed. In early January, he announced that he intended to nominate Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, a former head of the Boston Building Trades Council and president of Laborers Local 223, for Secretary of Labor. Walsh was the favorite of the more conservative unions in the AFL-CIO. His pick for Deputy Secretary of Labor, Julie Su, on the other hand, has a reputation as being more aggressively pro-worker. The blog On Labor noted when her nomination was announced that “In perhaps the single best sign of Su’s ability to effectively fight for workers’ rights, a California business lobbying group took out a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal last month opposing her potential nomination.”

Biden has also reversed Trump executive orders which curtailed the rights of federal workers and their unions, and has suspended the implementation of a rule issued by the Department of Labor on January 7 which would have made it easier for employers to classify their workers as independent contractors rather than employees. By suspending the implementation of the rule, the Biden administration will have the opportunity to reverse it through the Labor Department’s formal rule-making process, thus following through on a campaign promise to support the rights of so-called “gig workers” who work for companies like Uber and Lyft to basic labor standards, such as the minimum wage.