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Public Statements

Executive Session

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

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Mr. CASEY. I rise to speak about the National Labor Relations Board. This is a board and a set of issues we are going to be debating and have begun to debate recently. It will be with us for a while, and it is an important debate we are having.

As the Senate considers the National Labor Relations Board member nominations, I think it is very instructive, and I would even say essential, to look back at the history of the Board and the National Labor Relations Act, the legislation that created the Board, to recall why this Board and the act are so important to our economy, our workers, and our businesses.

The National Labor Relations Act played a key role in making the United States the prosperous Nation we are today. A properly functioning labor board and a revived, modernized National Labor Relations Act could be key players in a more prosperous future.

Congress passed the act in 1935 during the depths of the Great Depression. The National Labor Relations Board Act legitimized and gave workers the right to join unions. It encouraged and promoted collective bargaining as a way to set wages and settle disputes over working conditions, and it led to a surge in union membership and representation. It is worth remembering as well why the act was passed in the first place.

To quote section 1 of the act: ``The inequality of bargaining power between employees ..... and employers ..... substantially burdens and affects the flow of commerce, and tends to aggravate recurrent business depressions by depressing wage rates and the purchasing power of wage earners.''

I am quoting in pertinent part the most significant words in that part of the act which are the flow of commerce, how important it is to settle disputes so we can have a free-flowing commerce, and that workers have the rights they are entitled to.

As I said, it was passed in 1935. The economy was reeling. One-fourth of the workforce was jobless. Millions of Americans were poor, hungry, and homeless. Balancing the bargaining power of employers and employees, Congress hoped to restore the Nation to economic prosperity. Giving workers the right to organize and bargain collectively would allow them to stand up to corporate power and demand higher wages, thereby increasing their incomes and their purchasing power. That, in turn, would increase consumption and demand for goods, increasing production and, in fact, increasing employment.

As former NLRB Chairman Wilma Liebman said: ``The law was enacted less as a favor to labor, than to save capitalism from itself.''

We know that before the New Deal, the Federal and State governments, the courts, and the law had all been hostile to the collective rights of workers in their struggles against corporate power. For decades, going back to the late 1800s, the majority of production workers in America's heavy industries had labored in harsh and often dangerous conditions for low wages, with little security. I know this from my own family's history, but I also know it from the history of my own region of northeastern Pennsylvania, the so-called hard coal or anthracite region of Pennsylvania.

Stephen Crane, the great novelist, wrote about the coal mines right around the turn of the century. Actually, they are the coal mines of my home county. He talked about all the ways a miner could lose his life in the coal mines. I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the Record that part of Stephen Crane's essay about the coal mines.

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Mr. CASEY. When unions sprang up to defend the rights of workers, they were treated as illegal conspiracies, ruthlessly smashed by companies that either used violence or called on the police or military to defend their interests. The unions rarely made more than temporary gains.

When America began to industrialize in the 1800s, the relationship between workers and their bosses changed dramatically. Craft work by skilled employees was replaced by mass production with hundreds or even thousands of people working for a single, impersonal corporation. Giant powerful entities generally treated their workers like faceless, expendable commodities--inputs into the production process, whose costs had to be kept low in order to maximize profits in the incomes of robber barons. That was certainly true in my home State of Pennsylvania.

The corporations amassed enormous wealth, but the employees were mostly left behind, with lives of misery and hardship. In Pittsburgh, for example, the western corner of our State, a remarkable in-depth sociological study by the Russell Sage Foundation of the lives of working families in the early 1900s found widespread grinding poverty and child labor, poor health and education, and astonishing levels of work-related injury and illness. In Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is located, with a million residents, more than 500 workers died in industrial accidents in a single year, most of them in the steel mills. The same was true in the coal mines.

To give you an example, in 1907, 1,516 workers were killed in the coal mines of Pennsylvania. In over about a 98-year period, 31,047 known fatalities happened in the coal mines of Pennsylvania.

If the United States today had a proportional number of occupational fatalities as they had in Pittsburgh when 500 workers died, the number would be 150,000 workers today losing their lives on the job. Workers were chewed up and discarded with no workers' compensation system and no hope of suing the corporation for negligence. The law of labor relations was seriously unbalanced. Whereas business owners were able to act collectively, joining together in corporations to be treated as a special kind of person under the law, while escaping individual liability for corporate acts, unions were sometimes treated as criminal conspiracies, their strikes were considered illegal restraints against trade, and courts intervened to issue injunctions to hold unions liable for the acts of their members.

When workers tried to form unions to defend themselves or to win a fair share of the profits, they were usually met by fierce resistance by employers, fueling anger and resentment, often leading to violence.

One of the most famous and, I should say, infamous tragedies involved Carnegie Steel, which for 10 years had a collective bargaining contract with its skilled employees at the Homestead plant but decided in 1892, during an economic depression, both to cut the employees' wages and to destroy the union. I won't go into the whole story today; we don't have time. Suffice it to say the union was crushed completely because of the actions of that steel company and then steel companies after it.

Move forward in history when demand for their products dried up in the Great Depression. Many businesses cut both wages and hours, further depressing workers' incomes and purchasing power.

In President Franklin D. Roosevelt's first year in office in 1933, he pushed through Congress the National Industrial Recovery Act. One of its main purposes was to encourage companies to recognize their unions and to bargain with them. FDR and Labor Secretary Frances Perkins were convinced that raising wages and thereby increasing consumer demand was essential to lift the economy and put people back to work.

Unfortunately, the entity the act created to encourage collective bargaining, the National Labor Board, as it was called at the time, had no power to compel compliance with the new law. Union membership soared, but the companies continued to resist collective bargaining or recognize the sham company unions they controlled, effectively bargaining with themselves rather than the real representatives of the workers. Instead of an orderly, efficient act, or system, I should say, the act produced chaos. The Supreme Court ruled that the act was beyond the powers of Congress under the commerce clause of the Constitution.

What happened then was Senator Robert Wagner of New York started over and drafted the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. It passed quickly and survived a constitutional challenge in the Supreme Court. The new law required companies to recognize unions as the exclusive representative of their employees when they could prove majority representation. It gave the new board the authority to conduct elections and to order companies to bargain in good faith over wages and working conditions. It outlawed sham company-dominated unions, and it protected employees from violations by employers of their right to join a union or to engage in strikes or other protected, concerted activities such as hand billing or picketing.

The Board itself was given the power to require employers to hire back fired workers, to pay lost wages with interest, and to agree not to break the law in the future.

For a time, the new law worked. As Wilma Liebman, on the National Labor Relations Board for 14 years, said recently:

Over the next decades, millions of workers voted for union representation in NLRB-conducted elections. And millions achieved a middle class way of life through collective bargaining and agreements that provided fair wages and benefits in major industries of the economy.

At the peak of union power, 35 percent of workers were covered by union contracts. They won higher wages, job security, and other benefits. American family incomes grew by an average of 2.8 percent per year from 1947 to 1973. Let me say that again. There was almost a 3-percent increase in family incomes from 1947 to 1973, with every sector of the economy seeing its income roughly doubled.

Due to a number of factors, union membership as a share of private sector employment has declined from that 35 percent to less than 7 percent today. We know that our history tells us not only is the act important for union members and for their families, but it is also very important for the middle class.

No one thinks the National Labor Relations Board by itself will be able to restore balance to America's incomes or restore purchasing power to the middle class. The Board itself can help make a difference, especially if Congress repairs decades of damage to the rights of unions and employees to organize, bargain and, if necessary, to, iN fact, strike. The Employee Free Choice Act would have been a good start in that campaign of repair and restoration.

Tens of millions of Americans today are working at poverty wages. By one estimate, 28 percent of workers are paid at a poverty-level wage or less. People who work hard for a living deserve a path to a decent economic future. Workers today are better off than the average workers surveyed in Pittsburgh 100 years ago, as I cited earlier, but their lives are getting harder every year. They are not sharing in our ever-growing national wealth.

I hope we can begin a process of reviving collective bargaining soon, but first we must end the disgrace of leaving the Nation's most important labor relations agency without leadership. It is shameful if we allow this to happen. The recent record of obstruction of nominations in the Senate is, in a word, unacceptable and should be unacceptable to every American. It is time to confirm the President's nominees to the National Labor Relations Board, to give certainty to workers and to businesses as we continue to recover and create jobs.

As I leave, I would go back to the few short words I will read from the opening Findings and Policies of the National Labor Relations Act:

Experience has proved that protection by law of the right of employees to organize and bargain collectively safeguards commerce from injury, impairment, or interruption, and promotes the free flow of commerce by removing certain recognized sources of industrial strife and unrest.

I yield the floor, and I suggest the absence of a quorum.

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