On August 1st President Obama made a bold statement by appointing Richard Griffin to serve as the NLRB's General Counsel only three days after the former union lawyer vacated his unconstitutional recess appointment as a NLRB Board Member. The President statement by appointment made at least two things clear -
- The President wants an aggressive pro-labor General Counsel and NLRB, and
- The President values advancing the labor agenda over cooperation with the US Senate.
As we discussed here on July 30th the Senate confirmed a full Board for the first time in a decade as a result of a "deal" in which Senate Republicans capitulated to a threat from Senate Democrats to change the rules on filibusters. We noted last week that this deal was likely not a good deal at all for employers as it resulted in three former union lawyers appointed as the controlling majority of the Board.
For employers, one of the only concessions of the "deal" was that it resulted in the withdrawal of the pending nominations of Griffin and Sharon Block to the Board. Griffin and Block of course had served as unconstitutionally appointed recess appointments since January 2012. During their period on the Board they issued a number of controversial pro-labor decisions and were generally viewed as activist Board members. To the chagrin of employers and Congressional Republicans they also continued to issue decisions even after multiple Courts of Appeals ruled they were unconstitutionally appointed and had no authority to act. In May Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) encapsulated the view of many noting:
My problem is that they continued to decide cases after the federal appellate court unanimously decided they were unconstitutionally appointed. Not only has the President shown a lack of respect for the Constitutional role of the separation of powers... but I believe [Griffin and Block] have as well.
The President's withdrawal of their nominations was a symbolic, if not substantive victory.
By nominating Griffin to serve as the agency's top lawyer and prosecutor, the President has both symbolically and substantively thumbed his nose at the Senate Republicans and employers.
In fact, rather than removing Griffin's influence from the Board by the deal, it seems that the President may have actually enhanced that influence. As the General Counsel Griffin will serve an important policy role in deciding where the prosecutorial direction of the Board. The General Counsel has the final say in whether the Board pursues cases which reverse existing Board precedent, continue recent expansions of Section 7 rights or create entire new theories of employer liability. The recent Boeing controversy as well as the assault on "at-will" agreements, social media policies and similar common sense employer policies are all the result of an aggressive NLRB General Counsel flexing his muscles.
With Griffin's appointment to such an important position, employers have reason for concern. As if not borne out by the decisions of the Board since he was appointed, Griffin has a long history as a union advocate. For nearly twenty years prior to his 2012 recess appointment to Griffin was employed by the International Union of Operating Engineers as its counsel, rising to serve as the union's General Counsel and to serve as on the board of directors of the AFL-CIO Lawyers Coordinating Committee. Griffin will now serve as the top prosecutor bringing cases before a Board, the majority of which is comprised of his former union lawyer colleagues.
While Griffin technically needs to be confirmed by the Senate to be General Counsel, in the absence of a confirmation, the Act permits the President to appoint Griffin as Acting General Counsel at any time, and to serve in that role the full powers of a confirmed General Counsel. In fact, Lafe Solomon, the current Acting General Counsel, has been serving in that capacity sine June 2010 without confirmation. So in essence, as soon as the President wants Solomon to pass the baton to Griffin, Griffin will start serving in his new role.
Employers should not expect a reversal of course for the Office of the General Counsel as Griffin is likely to continue, if not expand the efforts of Solomon to broaden the Board's role in non-union workplaces.
Union-free employers should dust off their union avoidance programs and redouble their efforts.
Unionized employers should be prepared for more strident and aggressive unions.
All employers should review their policies and procedures to ensure they are not susceptible to challenge under the Board's recent pronouncements.