It's been six years since Rich Ahearn retired from the staff of the National Labor Relations Board. After working at the agency for more than three decades, including stints as regional director for NLRB offices in three different states, Ahearn stepped down in 2012 to a career as a neutral labor arbitrator.
Then, early this year, Ahearn got word of an impending shakeup at the agency. In a conference call with current NLRB regional directors around the country, general counsel Peter Robb outlined a sweeping plan to restructure the agency, the federal government's preeminent protector of workers' rights.
Robb's plan called for shutting down an unknown number of the NLRB's twenty-six regional offices in favor of a system of larger regional offices. And it would strip the remaining regional directors of their authority to investigate and resolve violations of workers' rights, instead handing that power over to a half-dozen or fewer midlevel executives.
These proposals were framed in the context of a proposed 9 percent budget cut, reduced NLRB caseloads, and general demands for greater efficiency in government. But that did not sit well with former agency staff, including Ahearn, many of whom learned of the proposal after it was reported by the business news service Bloomberg BNA on January 17.
In early February, fifty-six retired regional directors, including Ahearn, signed a letter addressed to Robb eviscerating the proposal. They disputed that it would save money or increase efficiency, and warned that it would likely violate federal civil service laws.
Ahearn had never seen anything like Robb's proposal--or the reaction. In his years at the agency, he had seen other plans to revamp operations, and even helped develop some of them. But none, he says, ever triggered the outcry that this one has. "Not even close."
NLRB higher-ups have also proposed turning investigations of labor law violations over to less-experienced personnel and ratcheting up already tight timetables. Taken together, these measures point to a further erosion of workers' rights in an era when diminished union power has already contributed significantly to worsening economic inequality.
Now labor lawyers, union activists, and career professionals are watching to see what happens next. For some, it's the clearest evidence that under President Donald Trump, the labor board is poised to make a hard right turn--one that could transform the agency created to promote collective bargaining and protect workers into a hollow shell, or worse.
"Morale is not good," says Irv Gottschalk, retired director of the NLRB's Milwaukee regional office. "Nobody knows where this is going."
Created under the New Deal, the National Labor Relations Board is one of a handful of federal agencies charged with protecting workers, and the...