The Senate voted 49-46 on Wednesday to confirm business lawyer Peter Robb as the next general counsel for the National Labor Relations Board, the main federal labor law enforcement agency.
Robb replaces President Obama's appointee, Richard Griffin, who gained a reputation for pro-labor activism during his time on the board.
Robb was the attorney who litigated President Reagan's firing of the striking Air Traffic Controllers Association members in 1981. The move is generally considered a watershed moment in labor history, one that greatly weakened union political power in Washington D.C.
Robb, a Vermont resident, has practiced labor law at the firm Downs Rachlin Martin since 1995.
While his new title implies an advisory role, the general counsel position is functionally the chief executive officer at the NLRB. The agency is overseen by a five-member board, but the general counsel manages the agency's day-to-day activities and can initiate enforcement activities on his own. The board has about 1,600 employees, the vast majority of which report directly to the general counsel.
"I have always believed in the core values expressed in the [National Labor Relations] Act, which can be paraphrased as protecting the rights of employees to engage in union or other protected, concerted activity with respect to wages, hours and working conditions as well as the rights of employees to refrain from such activity," Robb said at his Senate confirmation hearing last month. "And once employees have freely chosen a labor organization to represent them, the act promotes collective bargaining. I believe these principles are the foundations of our successful economic system."
Robb's statement indicates he would make it a priority for the board to ensure the rights of employees who dissent from their union's positions, and that he would set a higher bar for unions to prove that they have majority support of workers before certifying an election.
That would be a stark contrast from his predecessor. Griffin was a formerly a top lawyer for the International Union of Operating Engineers, before being confirmed as general counsel in 2013 in a deal with Senate Republicans. He aggressively sought to reinterpret old workplace rules to aid labor organizing, most notably by expanding the board's joint employer rule.
"As General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, Peter Robb will have an opportunity to help restore the labor board to the role of a neutral umpire in labor disputes after years of the board acting more like an advocate for organized labor under the previous administration. Mr. Robb will have the important role of protecting workers’ rights and assisting employers if some of their employees want to form a union," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Health, Education Labor and Pensions Committee, after Robb was confirmed.