Workers’ Rights Boards

By 1993, unions and other groups had realized that one of the greatest impediments to the meaningful practice of the labor rights supposedly guaranteed under U.S. law was in fact the very body that had been established to enforce these rights, the National Labor Relations Board (or NLRB). The NLRB was established in 1935 as a federal body whose job was to act as an advocate for workers who were being prevented by their employers from exercising their right to organize.

However, trade unionists knew that the NLRB had not only failed to adequately fulfill its federal mandate to safeguard workers’ rights, but instead increasingly actually functioned to defer, delay, and sometimes even block the ability of women and men working in the U.S. to exercise their rights on the job without fear of intimidation or retribution.

As a way of drawing national attention to this failure, Jobs with Justice, a coalition of labor, community, faith-based and student organizations organized a National Day of Action against the NLRB on May 27, 1993. The action included sit-ins and other strategies that shut down NLRB offices in 26 cities around the country. These actions made their point as more than 10,000 people took part, and 1,000 were arrested.

But those involved in organizing the Day of Action knew that it had to be the beginning of a longer-term campaign, rather than an end in itself. Transforming the NLRB, if it could be accomplished at all, would be an arduous and time-consuming process; in the meantime, workers trying to exercise their right to organize were still being intimidated and often fired. They couldn’t wait for far off reforms. With the help of well-paid union-busting law firms, the boss was still able to use the NLRB process as a way to stall action on worker complaints, often drawing out cases for years. Workers needed immediate attention to their situations-they needed an alternative to the NLRB.

Conversations then began between Jobs with Justice and the unions involved in the NLRB actions on establishing an alternative structure to advocate for workers’ rights, and especially the right to organize. What was needed was a formal body that would be willing and able not just to hear worker complaints, but also to ACT on those complaints, promptly and strategically. This need was met by the formation of the WORKERS’ RIGHTS BOARDS.

Local Jobs with Justice coalitions in more than 20 cities across the country formed WRBs to take on local issues. In 2004, Jobs with Justice formed a National Workers' Rights Board to take on campaigns that have a national impact.

Who are the members of the Workers’ Rights Boards?

Prior to the Day of Action against the NLRB, Jobs with Justice coalitions had already begun building up networks of community, religious, and leaders who could be called upon to use their authority and community status to intervene strategically in workers’ rights campaigns. The Workers’ Rights Boards were thus a way to formalize a strategy that JwJ coalitions had already been using successfully.

Workers’ Rights Boards are an organic outgrowth of a strong JwJ coalition. WRB Members include alderpersons and state representatives; ministers, priests, rabbis and other religious leaders, organizers and activists from public housing coalitions, advocates for the homeless, immigrant and refugee rights advocates and community living-wage groups; academics, researchers, and other educators. Some Board members will be able to play a more active and varied role than others, but all will commit to “being there” to defend workers.

Why these particular people?

The heterogeneity of the Workers’ Rights Boards emphasizes the point that workers’ rights are civil rights. That is, they aren’t or shouldn’t be a matter of concern only for labor unions, or for individual workers or their families, but rather for everyone. Workers, after all, aren’t “just” workers; they are also neighbors, members of communities, people of faith, students and parents of students, taxpayers, caregivers, heads-of-households, and family members. Assaults on workers’ rights are also assaults on the stability and well being of neighborhoods, religious communities, school systems and universities, and families.

Therefore Workers’ Rights Boards draw members not only from the ranks of solid union supporters but also from amongst those who simply believe in respect, fairness and dignity and are looking to do something in service of those principles. Importantly WRB members are recruited on this basis as well as with the presumption that their power in the community will either have a direct impact on employers or on the workers involved in local economic justice struggles.

How does a Workers’ Rights Board function?

A Workers’ Rights Board is always anchored in and works in tandem with a strong Jobs with Justice coalition. The Board’s task is to be available to respond strategically to the needs of ongoing economic justice campaigns. That is, Boards don’t function in isolation, but always as part of a campaign, as one tool among many in building support and resources for workers. WRB members exercise creative combinations of “moral persuasion” and public exposure tactics to put pressure on employers who engage in unfair labor practices, including blocking their workers’ right to decide, if they choose, to be represented by a union. The WRB seeks to provide a collective and unified voice in support of workers, and to establish community standards for employer behavior. It is because they were founded out of this sentiment that the WRB’s admittedly have a bias. Workers’ Rights Boards are set-up to level the playing field. A field clearly tilted against workers. So the Board never claims to be neutral. The Boards are pro-worker institutions. Despite this, they do remain independent of any one particular union and therefore are free to choose which campaigns they work on. Boards always invite employers’ perspectives when they invite workers’ perspectives but they don’t however claim to merely hear all sides equally - they are designed to promote workers’ rights.

To this end, Workers’ Rights Boards undertake a range of activities as part of an ongoing campaign to put pressure on the boss. Including: Writing letters to management, or to customers or Boards of Directors; making delegation visits to management, or relevant public officials and offices to request positive action, including neutrality during elections; conducting card check elections; appearing on television or radio programs to publicize the workers’ cause and/or debate representatives of management; speaking with the press, writing press releases and letters to the editor; and, demonstrating solidarity with workers at rallies and other public actions. Often campaigns request a Workers’ Rights Board hearing after they have tried in other ways to come to an agreement with an employer — meeting or attempts to meet with management, filing grievances, organizing rallies and actions, and even filing complaints with the NLRB.

A typical hearing will foreground testimony from workers who provide examples of the sorts of impediments they are facing at work. Often workers have little if any access to this kind of public forum. Worker testimony is backed up by legislators, union representatives, researchers and others who provide additional evidence of abuse, or contextualize the local situation within a larger context of systemic problems or trends.

After hearing this testimony, Boards draw up and announce a list of resolutions of actions they will take to follow-up on what they’ve heard.

Early on it became clear that for the WRB to have credibility on union organizing campaigns, the Board would have to exist beyond those campaigns. The WRB would need to define itself as a place any worker could turn for justice. So over the years Boards have held hearings on day labor, occupational and community safety and health, and welfare reform as a complement to the union organizing support work that the Boards have prioritized.

What do the Workers’ Rights Boards accomplish?

Obviously, the most important benefit of the various strategies used by the Workers’ Rights Board is the community support and power it provides for workers in the midst of campaign struggles!

But there are many other benefits as well. The WRB can increase consciousness in the community about the centrality of workers to their communities, and the extent to which abuses of workers’ rights impact on everyone in the community. It increases community awareness of the positive social role played by unions, and contributes to the ability of unions and community groups to work together toward common victories. It provides much-needed publicity for labor issues that are often under-represented, if they are represented at all, in the media. As importantly, it increases awareness on the part of everyone involved of the profound long-term benefits of building solidarity.