Person

Wilma Liebman

Official photograph of Wilma B. Liebman, Member and Chair, National Labor Relations Board. (link)
Born:

1950

Nationality:

American

Occupation:

Union lawyer and former member of the National Labor Relations Board

Wilma Liebman is a labor union lawyer best known for serving as a Democrat on the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) from 1997 to 2011. She was appointed chair of the NLRB by former President Barack Obama, serving from 2009 to 2011 during a tumultuous period in the Board’s history during which the NLRB faced several legal challenges after operating without a quorum. [1]

Background

Liebman was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She received an bachelor’s degree from Barnard College and a law degree from George Washington University in 1974. After graduation, she became a staff attorney at the National Labor Relations Board . In 1980, she became staff counsel for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, a position she held until 1989. From 1990 to 1993, Liebman was counsel to the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers. [2]

In 1994, Liebman was named special assistant to the director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS). In 1994, Liebman was appointed to a three-person mediation panel by the National Mediation Board, which oversees strikes in the railroad and airline industries. [3] As a member of that panel, Liebman helped to resolve the 1994-95 Major League Baseball strike, which lasted for more than 50 days and caused the cancellation of the 1994 World Series. [4] Liebman was promoted to deputy director of the FMCS in 1995 and served for two years in that position. [5]

NLRB Membership

Clinton and George W. Bush Administrations

Liebman was nominated to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) by former President Bill Clinton and confirmed in November 1997. She was renominated by former President George W. Bush and confirmed by the Senate in 2002. She was renominated to the NLRB in 2006.

In the second term of the Bush administration, Liebman became increasingly vocal about rulings from the NLRB, accusing the Board of becoming too pro-management. In a 2007 hearing before a Congressional subcommittee, commenting on an NLRB ruling in which the NLRB found in favor of the employer, Liebman claimed that the slowness of the NLRB and its frequent rulings in favor of management would make employees less likely to come forward. [6] Liebman also asserted that the NLRB’s decisions reflected more than simply ideological changes reflective of new presidential appointments, claiming, “Something different is going on—more sea change than seesaw.” [7]

In a 2008 article in the Journal of Labor and Society, Liebman questioned whether NLRB decisions that protected workers’ rights to reject unionization suggested that “the notion of collective action as a means to equality and social justice has been abandoned, with a regime of individual rights elevated in its place.” [8]

Designation as NLRB Chair

On January 20, 2009, then-President Barack Obama designated Liebman chairman of the NLRB. [9] Teamsters president James P. Hoffa, Jr. lauded Liebman’s “sense of fairness and decency” and said she would “restore the board into the honest broker of differences between employees and their employer that it has been for most of the past 75 years.” [10] Republicans and conservatives criticized Liebman’s designation, with Fox News commentator Sean Hannity pointing to her 2008 article in the Journal of Labor and Society as an example of her “radical track record.” [11]

When Liebman became chairman of the NLRB, the statutorily five-member board had three vacancies and consisted of only Liebman and Republican-appointed member Peter Schaumber, depriving the NLRB of a quorum. Liebman and Schaumber agreed that they would continue to decide uncontroversial matters before the NLRB, but would not agree to any precedent-changing decisions without a quorum. [12] The Democratic-controlled Senate had refused to confirm Republican nominees to the NLRB during the George W. Bush administration, and Republican Senators maintained a filibuster against Democratic nominees from the Obama administration. [13]

Three federal appeals courts approved the Board’s power to issue decisions pursuant to this agreement between Liebman and Schaumber. But the appeals court for Washington, D.C, held that all decisions of the NLRB issued without a quorum were void. President Obama nominated Craig Becker, a former attorney for the AFL-CIO and Service Employees International Union who had advocated for prohibiting employers from campaigning against unionization, to the NLRB. [14] Then-U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) called Becker “the most controversial nominee that I’ve seen in a long time” and placed a hold on his nomination. [15] Ultimately, Becker’s nomination failed. [16]

In June 2010, the Supreme Court held that the NLRB could not legally operate without a quorum. Traditionally left-leaning Justice John Paul Stevens sided with conservative justices, holding that allowing two members to run the agency when the Senate and the White House could not agree on new members would be letting the Board “create a tail that would not only wag the dog, but would continue to wag after the dog has died.” The decision invalidated almost 600 decisions made by the Board during the period in which it lacked a quorum. [17]

Recess Appointments

In April of 2010, President Obama made two recess appointments to the NLRB, including Becker, and Democrats took a 3-1 majority on the Board. [18]

The newly reconstituted Board moved quickly to reconsider an earlier decision that rejected “card check” unionization procedures, in which members vote on whether to unionize by turning in authorization cards, instead of voting through a secret ballot. Democrats had made the authorization of card check elections a major policy goal since the 2008 Presidential election. [19] The NLRB approved card check in December 2010. [20] It also overturned two Bush administration decisions, mandating a six-month waiting period after an employer recognizes a union before employees could challenge unionization and imposing a six-month to one-year window for employees or a rival union to challenge a union’s status after a company’s ownership changes. [21]

The NLRB also approved a new rule requiring private employers to display posters explaining union rights and threatened to sue states that passed laws guaranteeing the right to a secret ballot in union elections. [22] Liebman described the newly reconstituted Board as “reinvigorated” and accused Republicans of preferring “that the board be dead or dying.” [23]

Post-NLRB Career

Liebman’s term as NLRB Chair expired on August 27, 2011 and she was not renominated. She told the New York Times after stepping down that Republican criticism of the agency was “grossly out of proportion to what has happened and what has been done” and accused Republicans of “com[ing] in with a baseball bat.” [24]

Liebman now teaches labor law at the University of Illinois and is also a senior research associate at the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard University Law School. [25]

References

  1. Sam Hananel. “On Labor Day, labor board still in gridlock.” Associated Press. September 7, 2009. Accessed January 3, 2021. http://archive.boston.com/news/nation/washington/articles/2009/09/07/on_labor_day_us_labor_board_remains_in_gridlock/. ^
  2. “President Clinton Names Wilma B. Liebman, Peter J. Hurtgen and Joseph Robert Brame As Members of the National Labor Relations Board.” The White House. October 28, 1997. Accessed January 3, 2021. https://clintonwhitehouse6.archives.gov/1997/10/1997-10-28-president-names-three-to-nlrb.html. ^
  3. Lawrence H. Kaufman. “White House Seen Close to Naming Appointments to Mediation Board.”  Journal of Commerce. July 19, 1993. Accessed on Westlaw (1993 WLNR 712323) January 3, 2021. ^
  4. Mark Maske. “Mediator Hopes Talks Restart Soon.” Washington Post. August 16, 1994. Accessed on Westlaw (1994 WLNR 5683871) January 3, 2021. ^
  5. “President Clinton Names Wilma B. Liebman, Peter J. Hurtgen and Joseph Robert Brame As Members of the National Labor Relations Board.” The White House. October 28, 1997. Accessed January 3, 2021. https://clintonwhitehouse6.archives.gov/1997/10/1997-10-28-president-names-three-to-nlrb.html. ^
  6. “President Bush NLRB Rulings Have Eroded Workers Rights, Witnesses Tell Joint Senate-House Subcommittee.” U.S. Federal News. December 13. 2007. Accessed on Westlaw (2007 WLNR 24656280) January 3, 2021. ^
  7. Tamara Lytle. “Worker still seeks ’96 back pay.” Orlando Sentinel. December 14, 2007. Accessed on Westlaw (2007 WLNR 24714724) January 3, 2021. ^
  8. Wilma Liebman. “Labor Law Inside Out.” Journal of Labor and Society. May 20, 2008. Accessed January 3, 2021. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1134899. ^
  9. “Wilma Liebman Designated NLRB Chairman.” U.S. Federal News. January 22, 2009. Accessed on Westlaw (2009 WLNR 1386342) January 3, 20201. ^
  10. “Hoffa Hails Designation of Wilma Liebman as Chairman of the NLRB.” PR Newswire. January 23, 2009. Accessed on Westlaw January 3, 2021. ^
  11. “Interview with Norm Coleman.” Fox News. January 27, 2009. Accessed on Westlaw (2009 WLNR 1599637) January 3, 2021. ^
  12. Nedra Pickler. “Courts issue opposing opinions on NLRB.” Associated Press. May 1, 2009. Accessed January 3, 2021. https://www.heraldnet.com/news/courts-issue-opposing-opinions-on-nlrb/. ^
  13. Sam Hananel. “On Labor Day, labor board still in gridlock.” Associated Press. September 7, 2009. Accessed January 3, 2021. http://archive.boston.com/news/nation/washington/articles/2009/09/07/on_labor_day_us_labor_board_remains_in_gridlock/. ^
  14. Steven Greenhouse. “Businesses fear pro-labor tilt on board.” Houston Chronicle. April 1, 2010. Accessed on Westlaw (2010 WLNR 6844815) January 3, 2021. ^
  15. “McCain Delays Vote on Labor Board Nominee.” Workforce.com. October 21, 2009. Accessed January 3, 20201. https://www.workforce.com/news/mccain-delays-vote-on-labor-board-nominee. ^
  16. Kate Phillips. “Senate Confirms 2 Dozen Obama Nominees.” New York Times. February 11, 2010. Accessed January 3, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/12/us/politics/12confirm.html. ^
  17. Jesse J. Holland. “Court: 2-person labor board can’t make decisions.” Associated Press. June 17, 2010. Accessed January 3, 2021. https://abcnews.go.com/Business/wireStory?id=10940761. ^
  18. Steven Greenhouse. “Businesses fear pro-labor tilt on board.” Houston Chronicle. April 1, 2010. Accessed on Westlaw (2010 WLNR 6844815) January 3, 2021. ^
  19. Sheena Harrison. “Dana labor case: U.S. panel to revisit card-check decision.” Toledo Blade. September 21, 2010. Accessed January 3, 2021. https://www.toledoblade.com/local/2010/09/21/Dana-labor-case-U-S-panel-to-revisit-card-check-decision/stories/201009210012. ^
  20. Jeffrey Place. “Board’s Dana Decision Approves Broader Scope for Card Check and Neutrality Agreements.” Littler.com. December 13, 2010. Accessed January 3, 2021. https://www.littler.com/publication-press/publication/boards-dana-decision-approves-broader-scope-card-check-and-0. ^
  21. Nick Bjork. “National Labor Relations Board overturns 2 Bush-era union decisions.” Daily Journal of Commerce. August 30, 2011. Accessed on Westlaw (2011 WLNR 29340843) January 3, 2021. ^
  22. Jeffrey Place. “Board’s Dana Decision Approves Broader Scope for Card Check and Neutrality Agreements.” Littler.com. December 13, 2010. Accessed January 3, 2021. https://www.littler.com/publication-press/publication/boards-dana-decision-approves-broader-scope-card-check-and-0. ^
  23. Sam Hananel. “Labor Board Flexes Muscle, To Chagrin Of Business.” Associated Press. February 9, 2011. Accessed January 3, 2021. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/labor-board-flexes-muscle-to-chagrin-of-business/. ^
  24. Steven Greenhouse. “Labor Board’s Exiting Leader Responds to Critics.” New York Times. August 29, 2011. Accessed January 3, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/30/business/national-labor-boards-leader-leaves-amid-criticism.html. ^
  25. “Wilma B. Liebman.” Harvard University Law School. Accessed January 3, 2021. https://lwp.law.harvard.edu/people/wilma-b-liebman. ^

Connected Organizations

  1. Clinton Administration (Government Agency)
    National Labor Relations Board Appointee
  2. Economic Policy Institute (EPI) (Non-profit)
    Board Member
  3. National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) (Government Agency)
    Member, 1997-2009; Chair, 2009-2011
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