It is looking increasingly likely that Congressional Republicans will bring the federal government to a shutdown starting this weekend. “U.S. government services would be disrupted and hundreds of thousands of federal workers would be furloughed without pay if Congress fails to provide funding for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1,” Reuters reports. “Workers deemed essential would remain on the job, but without pay.” Among the many agencies that will be furloughing workers in the event of a shutdown is the National Labor Relations Board. Not only will unionized staff workers at the NLRB itself be hurt by the government shutdown—after years of enduring chronic and politically motivated underfunding and understaffing—but so, too, will working people around the country who depend on the NLRB to enforce labor law, investigate Unfair Labor Practice charges, manage union elections, etc. In this urgent mini-cast, we talk with Michael Bilik and Colton Puckett, legislative co-chairs of the National Labor Relations Board Union and full-time NLRB staff workers, about the daily work NLRB staff do, the role that work plays in the broader labor movement, and what it will mean for workers if the government shuts down and nearly all of NLRB staff are furloughed.
Additional links/info below…
- National Labor Relations Board Union website, Twitter/X page, and Instagram
- Jacob Bogage, Marianna Sotomayor, & Jeff Stein, The Washington Post, “Shutdown Looks More Likely, as House GOP Leaders reject Senate Plan“
- Reuters, “US Government Shutdown: What Is It and Who Would Be Affected?“
- Gay Semel, Labor Notes, “Viewpoint: The NLRB is Underfunded and Understaffed—And That’s a Big Threat to the Current Organizing Wave“
- Li Zhou, Vox, “The Republican vs. Republican Feud behind the Government Shutdown Fight, Explained“
- Maximillian Alvarez, The Real News Network, “Congressional Staffers Are Demanding the Senate Let Them Unionize“
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- Labor Radio / Podcast Network website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- In These Times website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- The Real News Network website, YouTube channel, podcast feeds, Facebook page, and Twitter page
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Michael Bilik: My name’s Michael Bilik. I’m an NLRBU legislative co-chair, along with Colton Puckett here. We are also full-time NLRB staff. I’ve worked for the NLRB as a trial attorney out of New York since 2011 and I’ve served the union in this legislative capacity since 2018. In that capacity, we represent all of the rank-and-file employees nationwide in all of the NLRB’s regional offices; about 50 in total. That includes attorneys, investigators, administrative staff, as well as the administrative staff in our headquarters. So we have a really wide degree of people that we represent. I’ve also served as the local president in Region 2 for several years. We’ve been at this legislative work now for the last five years, six years or so, totally in a volunteer capacity. We work full-time, like I said, as NLRB staff, so spend all of our own time doing this legislative work, trying to get the word out about what’s going on at the agency, and what’s happening to our staff. I’ll leave it to Colton.
Colton Puckett: My name is Colton Puckett. I’m also a co-chair of the legislative committee for the NLRBU. I’m a field attorney out of our Region 16 office in San Antonio, Texas. I’m actually relatively new to the agency. I’ve been here a little over a year and have been serving in the legislative co-chair capacity for almost that entire time. In addition to everything Mike said, one of the interesting things about the BU is we are completely independent almost by nature and by necessity, but that means we’re also completely rank-and-file run. So, as Mike said, we are all doing this on a volunteer basis, and that’s how basically the entire organizational structure of the union operates.
Maximillian Alvarez: All right. Well, welcome everyone to another episode of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today. Brought to you in partnership with In These Times magazine and The Real News Network, produced by Jules Taylor, and made possible by the support of listeners like you.
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My name is Maximillian Alvarez. I am really grateful to have Michael and Colton on the call today. As y’all heard, Michael and Colton are here speaking as members of the National Labor Relations Board Union, the NLRBU, and as staff members working at the NLRB. They are not, I want to make it clear, speaking on behalf of the agency or as representatives of the NLRB itself.
I’m super, super grateful to both of them for coming on the show today and talking to us because we’ve got, once again, another urgent mini-cast for y’all. We are recording this episode on Wednesday, September 27. We once again stand on the precipice of what is looking like an ever-increasingly likely government shutdown. That is going to impact a lot of people: A lot of people working in the federal government, and a lot of people who depend on the federal government for countless services. That includes the very workers that we talk to week in and week out on this show who are trying to band together with their coworkers and exercise their right to form a union. They are trying to exercise their right to not be retaliated against by their employers for engaging in protected concerted activity.
Yet, we know that that happens all too often in this country, which is why we have a National Labor Relations Board. We have an agency that is charged with overseeing labor relations and attending to labor violations. Every week, we give y’all more reasons why the NLRB itself is important and the role that it plays in the worker and labor movements that we cover on this show and at The Real News Network. You bet your ass that that’s going to be directly impacted by this federal government shutdown.
Before I toss things back over to Michael and Colton so that we can dig into what that is going to mean if, in fact, the government shuts down, what is it going to mean for the NLRB, what is that going to mean for Michael and Colton, their co-workers, and the working people that they are serving on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis, I want to set the table really quick and give y’all as much up-to-date context as we currently have as of right now at 5:00PM on Wednesday, September 27.
I want to start by reading the latest report from the Washington Post which was published about a half hour ago. We will obviously link to this piece in the show notes for this episode. This piece, which was written by Jacob Bogage and Marianna Sotomayor, is entitled “Shut Down Odds Grow as House GOP Leaders Reject Senate Spending Bill.” The article reads thus, “A federal government shutdown looked increasingly likely, as House Republicans indicated Wednesday they would not consider a bipartisan Senate plan to fund the government past the weekend deadline. The Senate is working on a bill to continue funding the government at current levels into mid-November, which would also provision some of the billions of dollars President Biden seeks for US aid to Ukraine and for natural disaster relief.
But House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Republican from California, swiftly rejected that idea, telling his conference in a closed-door meeting Wednesday that he would not put the Senate bill on the floor in its current form. In other private meetings this week, McCarthy began to float the idea of taking the Senate’s short-term bill, stripping it of provisions the House GOP opposes, then tacking on a House-passed border security bill and sending it back to the Senate. Separately, McCarthy and his allies have continued to encourage their colleagues to pass a 30-day short-term spending bill Friday, which would include border security, in a signal of defiance to the Senate. Exactly what that bill would include remained up in the air Wednesday afternoon.”
The authors continue later on in the piece: “The different tactics nearly guarantee a government shutdown unless lawmakers can force some other long-shot solution. The two chambers working in opposition to one another probably won’t have enough time to pass a stopgap spending bill, called a continuing resolution or CR, before the current funding laws expire at 12:01AM on Sunday.
McCarthy and President Biden worked out a deal in June that was supposed to avert this round of back and forth. During those talks, Republicans agreed to suspend the debt limit, aka, amount of money the federal government can borrow to pay for previously approved spending, in exchange for limiting non-defense spending in 2024 to about $1.6 trillion. That would be a cut from current spending levels accounting for inflation. But far-right members of McCarthy’s caucus have demanded a lower spending level and threatened to boot McCarthy from the Speakership if he did not comply. Instead of attempting to pass a short-term government funding bill with Democratic votes, McCarthy has tried to extract more concessions by abandoning the deal he struck in May.”
Now, I want to quickly follow that up with another article that we will link to in the show notes. This was also published earlier today, Wednesday, September 27. This was published in Reuters. It’s a quick passage that I’m going to read but it does directly address how the shutdown would affect multiple government agencies including the NLRB. This article in Reuters reads, “US government services would be disrupted and hundreds of thousands of federal workers would be furloughed without pay if Congress fails to provide funding for the fiscal year starting October 1. Workers deemed essential would remain on the job but without pay. Many government agencies have not updated shutdown plans they had prepared in the past, but here’s a guide to what would stay open and what would shut down.”
In the section labeled ‘labor’ they write, “Workplace safety inspections would be limited and investigations into unfair pay practices would be suspended, according to the White House. The ability of the National Labor Relations Board to mediate labor disputes would be curtailed because almost all of its 1,200 employees would be furloughed according to a 2022 plan.”
That is as much information as we currently have on where things stand with this looming government shutdown. But as I said and as those articles attest, it is looking increasingly likely that a shutdown will happen. So we wanted to get Michael and Colton on this urgent mini-cast to take stock of what the hell that’s going to mean and what working people should be prepared for in the event of a government shutdown. Also, more generally what this tells us of the state of the NLRB and how we got to this point with that agency, which again does such vital work for working people, for the movement, and for the enforcement of existing labor law.
Michael, Colton, really appreciate y’all hopping on and chatting with us today. I’ve talked long enough here in the intro. I want to dig into all of this with y’all. Before we get to the shutdown itself, there are two things I want to focus on first. First, I want to go back around the table and ask if y’all could say a bit more about the work that you do there and what you and your colleagues at the NLRB do. Because this is what we do every week: We talk to working people about the work that do and what goes into that work.
We’ve been talking about the NLRB so much in recent years because, again, this is where unions are filing for union elections. This is where unfair labor practice charges are getting filed against major corporations from Amazon to Starbucks to mom-and-pop coffee shops. It’s such a vital institution in the broader landscape of labor relations in this country. But we rarely ever get to hear about what work goes on in there and what that looks like for y’all on the other side. So can we start there and give people more of a sense of the work that goes on at the NLRB?
Colton Puckett: You touched on, at a high level, the core functions that we do that most folks that know about our agency know about what we do. We investigate unfair labor practice charges, so if someone believes that their employer or their union has violated the law in some way, they can file a charge with us. We investigate it and figure out whether or not the charge has merit. That’s a big portion of the work we do and I’ll talk a little bit more about what that means.
Another big thing that we do is we run union elections, essentially. When workers come together, they decide, we want to form a union, we want to join a union, and they’ll file a petition with us. There’s a certain process that that entails. Then when it comes time to actually hold the election, we in the field go to wherever that election is taking place and we make sure that it’s done and done in as fair and impartial a way as is possible.
Then the last thing we do, another big thing that is part and parcel with unfair labor practice investigations, is we try cases. If we find that there is merit to one of these unfair labor practice charges that we get, we always will try to settle a case, of course, but sometimes it doesn’t work out. That means we actually go to trial before an administrative law judge and we litigate the case and we try and prove the violation. It’s similar to… It’s not exactly like going to federal court but it’s the same general idea. So that’s another big portion of the work that we do.
That’s the big three things at a very high level. Sometimes getting into the day-to-day, some of that can get lost. As field staff, Mike mentioned at the top, we work in offices spread all around the country. We are essentially the front line of the agency for working people all across the country. That means that we interface directly with workers every single day. Whether that’s a charging party, we’re trying to help them figure out how to e-file their evidence, for example, or figure out what they need to send to us that might be useful versus what not to, or if we’re answering questions about where their case is in the process or what certain processes means because a lot of this is legalese. We don’t expect everybody to know exactly what an unfair labor practice is. That’s a big portion of the work we do.
One of the things that we do, in every regional office, there’s an information officer on duty every day. You can call your regional office. They might not answer immediately but leave a voicemail and you will talk to a live person that day, and they will walk you through any questions that you have. If you want to file a charge, they can assist you in preparing the charge and informing you how to do that. I don’t necessarily know that a lot of other federal agencies have that direct person-to-person interaction in that way. So that’s a big thing that we do. We talk to folks all the time and then try and help them understand what it is we do and what it is their rights are. So those are the big things we do.
A lot of the work we do… It’s interesting because I’m a labor law nerd but it can be a little dry. It’s a lot of research. It’s a lot of writing. It’s a lot of looking at evidence and thinking about, what we have, what we need, and has a violation occurred here. And figuring out what the law says for particular circumstances and making our best determination. That’s a lot of the day-to-day work and we’ll talk a little bit more later about how that has increased in recent years. We have a lot of cases, we’ll say that. So we try and work our way through them as best we can, as quickly as we can. That requires, like I said, a lot of working with the people that we serve, a lot of other types of work, basic research, writing, and all that stuff as well, too.
Michael Bilik: I’ll add that as Colton said, we have boots on the ground throughout the country. We have an agent in Alaska. We have agents in Puerto Rico. There aren’t many of us, but we’re out there. One of the advantages of that, as we said, we’re local. We talk to the people who are working in the communities that we live in constantly. We’re constantly taking their testimony, giving them an opportunity and avenue not only to tell their stories but potentially to enforce their rights.
I’ve been on the board… Like I said, I started as an intern in 2010 straight out of law school. So I’ve been around a while and I’ve seen the board take on a lot of different shades. I could say that right now, one of the things that I’ve always been the most proud of is our ability in the field. Because we’re able to dive into, we were at least, able to dive into cases, we really have this ability to resolve disputes. If you want to look at your job simply as a bureaucrat, okay, you have papers coming in, you’re taking the testimony. I don’t have an accept or reject stamp on my desk, although I’ve always wanted that. That can be the function sometimes.
But more often than not at this agency, because we’ve taken such an outreaching public point of view, is that we were able to really get the parties together and try to reach a resolution even during the investigation of a charge. Not only do we have… We still have that authority, of course, and we have that license, but as the case intake has exploded and staffing has cratered, that of course has become difficult. It becomes more and more difficult every day to perform that function.
But at least theoretically, when this agency is operating at some modicum of health, we do serve this mediator role. That’s constantly what we’re trying to do is trying to resolve. We understand that allowing cases to go through the full litigation process can take years. We also understand that our injunctive remedies where we run into federal court and try to get a federal judge who likely has either no experience with labor law or has extremely hostile views of federal agencies, especially federal agencies who enforce labor rights, we understand that these solutions are not always the best. So when we’re operating at our best, our staff, our people are really able to apply their skills and talents to try to do good every day in the work in front of them. That’s a big part of what we do. Yeah, go ahead.
Colton Puckett: One thing I’ll add that was alluded to earlier on is that it’s interesting for us because, like you said, we’re here in our capacity as members of the union and talking about issues that affect us as workers, but we also know that we serve working people. So we occupy that dual role of wanting to serve working people but also being working people ourselves. It’s not lost on me, certainly. I can’t speak for anybody else but that’s a function that I try to be mindful of, at the very least, as often as I can.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, I wanted to, if I may, ask about that as a clarifying point for people listening who maybe did not know that the National Labor Relations Board staff had their own independent union, the NLRBU. This is something that is coming on people’s radar a bit more of late. Here at The Real News Network, earlier this year, I interviewed two congressional staffers who have been involved in the Congressional Workers Union, which is also an independent union movement to try to unionize different congressional staffing offices on the Hill, some in the House, but with the results of the midterm elections, the focus has been on the Senate. But a lot of people were stunned to learn about the effort in the first place. Before we move on, I wanted to ask if you could say a bit more for people listening about the union itself, why it’s important for people working within the NLRB to have their own union, and what that union means for you.
Colton Puckett: For us, I certainly wasn’t there when the union was formed, but for me, the reason to have a union and the reason that a union is important is the same for me as it is for most people who want to have a union. It’s having some semblance of a say in your working conditions. It’s protection against arbitrary or ridiculous discipline or enforcement of rules or things like that. It’s ensuring that you have the tools that you need to succeed in your job and that you are not constantly having to battle it out with management individually to get what you need. There’s power in the collective and there’s power in people coming together to have each other’s backs.
Our union doesn’t function any differently than any other union. We’re a federal sector union, so we’re constrained in terms of certain things we can do. Like, we don’t necessarily have the right to strike but we have as good of a grievance process or staple of people that can handle grievances as any union in the country, and we do that. Even for an agency that is dedicated to protecting workers’ rights, sometimes management is management, and you have to push back against things that they’re going to do. Sometimes you have political leadership of the agency that is fundamentally hostile to the mission of the agency and that can present problems for the staff as workers themselves in addition to administering the law. Our union helps protect us. We protect each other any time something like that happens. It’s no different than anybody else in their union.
Michael Bilik: Especially in times of that type of hostility where our… Of course, our bosses can change in an instant and they can become very different people overnight, especially in those times of hostility. And we’ve certainly experienced extreme hostility pretty recently. We also see that having a staff union that is vibrant, strong, and willing to speak out about issues affecting our terms and conditions of employment, but also about the health of the institution in which we serve.
By our nature, we’re public servants. The people who work here are sacrificing in one way or another to serve the public, to serve the mission of the agency. We have a lot of true believers who work here. Our collective strength around that idea is that together we can act in ways that will benefit and serve the institution, even when we have major headwinds, either from the people within or from Congress or from a lot of other people and entities and think tanks and whatever. Our agency and, by extension, us, have constant targets on our backs. It’s been that way for as long as I’ve been working here and much longer.
That’s the reason, I would say, in terms of the union, in terms of the NLRBU, we’re like the OG federal employee union. We’ve been around since 1936, so long before there was any statute protecting federal employees, and that’s like the year after this agency came into existence. Right off the bat, the staff here were like we need a union in order to be able to protect ourselves but also protect the institution and better serve the public. As you can imagine, it’s a union that is made up of labor lawyers, investigators, and all the people who are deeply involved and dedicated to the mission of promoting collective bargaining. So you can imagine what happens with that.
But at the same time, yeah, bosses are bosses, and NLRB bosses are no different, frankly. Our labor relations, honestly, with the NLRB management forever have been pretty poisonous and very adversarial, I would say. There’s a reason why – It was a couple of years ago – That the GAO put out a report on our agency. I know people don’t wake up every day and say let me look at the latest GAO report that was put out. There’s a lot of telling stuff in there because no one really acts on this stuff but there’s a way in which they can shine a light on things happening inside the government that otherwise you never hear about.
One of their findings, when they took a look at our agency, was that our labor relations were awful. That their experience of even looking into the way in which our efficiencies around case handling and their communication back and forth with agency management, they concluded that actually one of the biggest issues of the agency is the way in which they were treating our staff unions and shutting us out in ways, but also taking a really, really hard-line approach.
At that point, the way federal employee unions work is we rely on something called official time. So it was a trade in the ’70s. Essentially, the statute that governs federal sector employee relations was passed in the ’70s. It’s got a ridiculously long name. I can’t remember it. We call it The Statute. Like The Act, it’s The Statute. There was a trade-off where federal employees essentially gave up their right to strike. One of the things we got in exchange was that we would be able to use duty time, while we’re on the job as employees, to do union functions. That has over time, for us, especially because we’re entirely self-run… We mentioned that before. We don’t have a staff. We have to be independent. We are run entirely by full-time NLRB staff and we rely entirely on official time.
You might recall pretty early on in the Trump administration that there were some executive orders that were aimed at federal employees and especially federal employee unions. One of those executive orders overnight sought to totally unlawfully gut the ability of federal employees to use official time. The agency took that – Even though, of course, they have an obligation to bargain and they have to bargain with us, especially to impasse and take it to the impasse – But they decided to unilaterally implement it.
At the time, the agency that serves federal employees, the way we serve the private sector, called the FLRA, the Federal Labor Relations Authority, didn’t have a general counsel, so they couldn’t act on any unfair labor practice charges that came before them. They were entirely 100% gutted. So we had no recourse. So you had that across the board for federal employees. That has been, still to this day, it’s not a priority in the administration. Anyway, I’m going far afield here to say that the way we operate our union is essentially entirely through this official time function.
Maximillian Alvarez: This is all super helpful. Frankly, if we weren’t recording an urgent episode related to the shutdown, I would want us to spend more time talking about this. It’s all helpful context because there are two things I want to say in response to that: One, about the nature of needing a union within the agency itself, even if that agency is the NLRB. That’s not necessarily a knock on the agency itself, but like we say on this show every week, every worker deserves a union. Every worker has that right. It is ultimately us who need to come together, band together, fight for our rights, and protect ourselves and our co-workers. You can’t leave that stuff up to chance, up to the whims of your employer, regardless of what institution you’re at.
Next week, the episode that we’ve got coming out on this podcast that I actually recorded yesterday, was an episode with four members of the Office and Professional Employees International Union, or OPEIU, Local 2 out in DC, who themselves are unionized staffers working at the national headquarters for the Service Employees International Union, SEIU. They have been working without a contract for over a year. They have also been facing union-busting, not like the overt evil, “I want to destroy the union and fire everybody” union-busting, but the soft union-busting where their membership has been shrinking for years. They have been dealing with two-tier employment systems that mean basically people hired after the last contract date are effectively screwed out of better pay and better benefits.
You don’t have to be a mustache-twirling CEO of Stellantis to be a union-buster. You can still achieve the same goals even if you work at an institution with a mission that you really believe in, whether you’re at a nonprofit, a government agency, or even at the headquarters of a labor union itself. No one is immune to the employer/employee relationship in the ways that it can be abused, the ways people can be exploited, and the points at which the interests of those two sides are fundamentally and diametrically opposed. That’s the nature of the beast.
I also wanted to fold that into the next question. Because you both started going into this, and Mike, you were saying, oh, I’m getting too far afield, but this is really important to cover before we end here and talk about the shutdown itself. Because before we get to that, I want people to better understand the state of the agency and the struggle that y’all have been going through for years.
The funding for the NLRB has not been raised since 2014. Then this past year it was raised but by, what, $23 million at a time when new union election filings are through the roof and ULPs are coming in left and right. There’s such a tremendous need for the work that y’all do. I know it because I interview the goddamn workers who need it every week and y’all are out there talking to them every week. So I’m well aware of how desperately people need a well-functioning, well-staffed, well-funded National Labor Relations Board. But I want people to understand before we talk about the effects of the shutdown, how hard it’s been to get that at the NLRB. Can you give folks more of an inside sense of the state of the agency and its funding, its staffing, and the things that are impacting y’all’s ability to carry out the mission that you’re there to carry out?
Michael Bilik: I’ll start with right now. We’re right up against the precipice of the shutdown, so we’re right at the end of the fiscal year. Like I said, I’ve been around for 12 years. Right now, we are struggling. Our case intake has been steadily on the rise but really the major problem is that we have been hemorrhaging staff. Like we discussed, the work of the NLRB is entirely on its staff. We don’t have generative AI functions to do the work of the NLRB, nor should we. It’s us, it’s bodies, and it’s bodies who earn a salary and benefits.
Over time, the agency’s budget has more and more and more become almost entirely made up of employee salaries because there’s been an attempt to basically cut and cut and cut around anything else that can be cut other than absolutely necessary overhead. The reason for that is really simple, and it’s something that is often a very black-boxed process that people don’t want to hear about. It can be boring, and it’s hard to necessarily connect the dots. That is, it’s appropriations, it’s budgets, it’s money, and if you care about labor rights, it’s something I implore you to try to do whatever you can to understand because it’s as complicated as it can be.
The very short version of it is that we receive funding through either some budget act, like any other federal agency, or a continuing resolution. There are all different vehicles that we receive funding, but they all happen in short-term increments that can be as short as a few days for a continuing resolution that pushes this funding out for an additional week, which is something you may be hearing a lot about right now on the shutdown, to at most, we will receive funding for a single-year period. Beyond that, we have no idea what our funding is going to be. That’s the way the entire federal government is funded, which of course is totally nuts because you can’t actually plan beyond a year for the most part.
When you have an agency like ours which has become such a target, politically, you know that there’s a certain group of people that are trying to defund you. Because they know if you defund the agency, it means you don’t have the people to enforce labor law, and that means labor law doesn’t get enforced. While that threat has always been out there, that we would be wholesale defunded… I remember actually when I started working here, I got an offer one day that was then rescinded a couple of months later because somebody in the House put out a bill saying they were going to cut NLRB funding by 40%. So everybody in the agency got scared and said, oh, well, we got to take away all the offers from the people that are going to come in for the next year. Then finally, it wasn’t until that bill dissipated that they brought all the offers back. Since then, that is the way that this agency largely gets staffed, is whenever we have a little opening, we’ll hire a few people. But for the most part, we live in fear of being gutted.
What has ended up happening is that even though we haven’t had that crazy bill that ultimately would gut us – Like the one that House Republicans are currently maybe even debating today, in their Labor, Health, and Education budget, which their proposal is something ridiculous, it would cut us back to $200 million from $300 million – It would result in… Colton and I would immediately disappear into the ether. We would have to lay off basically half the staff if that ever actually happened.
But what’s happened instead is that they figured out a different and much more effective and, in some ways, more pernicious way of killing us, which is by flat-funding us. So there was this idea coming out of the last time there was a shutdown, 2013. One of the budget deals that came out the year after that was this thing called sequestration. If you remember this, there were wholesale meat cleaver cuts to federal agencies and the military as well, it was everybody, who got a 5% cut across the board. We all suffered that cut. I remember Dick Griffin was the general counsel at the time. I was an NLRB staffer. I remember him coming on and telling everybody that we were going to do whatever we could not to furlough employees but there was no guarantee and there certainly was not going to be any hiring that year.
So after that year, starting in 2014, the sequestration ended, and we landed at $274 million. Every year since then, for all different reasons, there has been what people on the Hill would often refer to – In a way that would really piss me off, honestly – As a detente. That Democrats wouldn’t seek to increase the board’s funding and Republicans wouldn’t try to cut it. So that was the deal on NLRB funding. We’re a one-line item in a huge budget of Labor, Health, and Education. There are all sorts of hot-button issues in that bill. The NLRB’s budget was going to stay flat and no one was going to care about it.
So what happened? Well, guess what? Costs of salaries go up every year. We have mandated raises. Of course, as a working person, I do want a little raise every year. It would be nice. We have mandated raises every year. That all has to come out of our annual budget. The agency doesn’t have any discretion on that. And we have increases in overhead. Like we said, part of the way in which we’re affected is that we are all over the country; We have offices all over the place. We have people all over the place, mostly in urban areas. The rent is often too damn high. That’s true for the NLRB’s regional office’s rent as well. So that overhead continues to go up. So there’s only one way to deal with that and it’s through attrition. So each and every year goes by, since 2014, we lose bodies in order to be able to make up whatever overhead and salary increases are so that we can meet that same dollar amount each year.
What’s ended up happening is that… Like you mentioned, the first time we saw an increase was this past year, and it was $25 million. But for that period of time where we were flat funded, we have essentially lost about 40% of our staff in the regional offices, which is insane. And we feel it, let me tell you. We’ve lost 40% of our staff.
Meanwhile, in the last few years especially, our case intake has skyrocketed. We got some numbers that we were looking at based on our public website. You can figure these things out. We’re not all the way through the end of the fiscal year, but we can see that this year, probably ending September 30, we’re going to have another big increase this year in unfair labor case practice, and unfair ULP case filings. Last year, we had about 18,000 nationwide of ULPs. This year we’re going to have 19,500. And total with representation cases – Which saw a huge increase the year before, like a 50% year increase year over year – That is holding high still. That is not coming down. So we’re looking at over 22,000 cases nationwide. That’s going to end up being the most cases we’ve seen filed since before the Trump administration. Basically, we’ve rebounded to a pretty high number. Yet, where’s all the staff to do all that work that we had back in 2016?
So we’re looking right now at the number of cases that each agent is expected to investigate, prosecute, or facilitate, in terms of union election representation cases, which has essentially doubled since 2014, since the flat funding started. So it’s not all in our heads. We’re feeling this way right now. I can tell you from my experience, there are cases… Like I said before, one of the things that we’re most proud of is our ability to resolve cases.
Something that really is necessary is you need to be able to dive into a case quickly. Each day that goes by, the harder a case becomes to resolve. The parties become more entrenched, the remedies become harder to achieve, whatever. Maybe the person who is aggrieved is now out of work for an extended period, needs to find another job, walks away, and wants to do something different. What’s happened to us right now is that we don’t have the capacity to be able to do that. I can tell you from my experience, I’m putting out the fires that are in front of me every day. The processes that we’ve used in the past to be able to process these cases quickly, to get a resolution, get some decision within a few months at most – Which is really fast, frankly, for a federal agency – All that’s out the door right now. It’s not possible.
That is all coming from this decade of budget austerity that we faced. It was a few years into it, maybe in 2018, that it was something that we realized within the union that was not getting talked about at all in any sphere. Like we said, we’re an independent union. We didn’t really have a good way of broadcasting and talking about what was going on inside these doors but we realized what was going on. So we decided to create this legislative capacity at that point and really start hammering, going to the Hill, talking to as many people as we can to say, hey, look, here’s what’s happening. We can see what’s happening. We could see our staffing falling off the cliff at that point. This was only four years into it. This was five years ago, 2018. Each year that went by, we’d say, hey, look, we’re continuing to tell you this.
So over that time, we’ve definitely tried to focus energy on this on the Hill. It’s become more of an issue and that’s part of the reason why we actually were able to get this $25 million increase last year. It was a monumental effort to break free of that decade-long detente that had really screwed us. But that $25 million, that’s an inflationary adjustment. That was an 8% increase in a year when inflation was 8%. That was barely covering the difference. So last year, we were potentially facing furloughs of our staff, not anything to do with the shutdown, but because our flat funding had finally gotten to the point where we were starting to really cut to the bone.
We warned everybody about this a year ago that we’re not going to have the money. We’re going to have to furlough people. We get this $25 million. We’re probably facing that same reality again. Imagine working under those circumstances where you don’t really have any idea what the agency’s budget’s going to be and you are constantly under this threat that’s really not that far off that you’re going to be furloughed and you’re not going to be paid some random number of days. That’s the current state of the NLRB, let’s put it that way.
Colton Puckett: I’ll add real quick, one of the things Mike talked about is attrition. What attrition also means is institutional brain drain. So people with tons of experience, people that have done this for years, they have earned their retirement in a lot of cases, or they’re tired of the pressure, they’re tired of the caseload, and they burn out, and that’s real. I don’t fault anyone for that. So folks leave, and we either can’t backfill or to whatever extent we do get any hiring authority, it’s usually not much. But we bring on new people, and they get buried in an avalanche of stuff, and they burn out just as quickly. So we lose folks. Even if we do get a small amount of hiring authority, if we can’t keep those people, the problem is still the same. So it becomes this vicious cycle of, even if we can get some people, a portion of them are not going to stay. It self-perpetuates over and over again. Meanwhile, we’re losing good, dedicated people who have a ton of experience.
Maximillian Alvarez: I want to be careful here because I don’t want to get anyone in trouble. I know we’re already going long, so we have to wrap up. I want to say I’m speaking for myself here, no one else, but what the fuck, man? Because this is where, to me, the obvious… When we hear from politicians on both sides of the aisle about how they’re friends of labor… Right now, we’re talking as the UAW strike is in full swing. More Locals joined the standup strike last Friday. It’s a pretty damn significant thing in our lifetimes, I’ve never seen it before, that the president of the US went to a picket line and the former president before him, well, he went to a SCAB picket line. Or he went to a SCAB gathering organized by the National Right to Work Foundation. So fuck them. Again, I’m speaking for myself.
But stuff like that… Everyone wants to pretend that they’re friends of the worker, everyone wants to pretend that they’re on our side, and every election season we see the same old shit: We see people standing next to coal-covered coal miners in Appalachia. We see people standing next to manufacturers in the Midwest and the Rust Belt, UPS workers, teachers, nurses, and so on and so forth because it’s easy to say you’re pro-labor and pro-worker when the stakes are low for you. But when it actually comes to showing your hand, to actually making good on that campaign promise to stand up for workers, you see everyone’s true colors. Frankly, we’ve seen on both sides of the aisle that these people don’t care as much about workers and laborers as they say they do. How could you throttle the very agency that is tasked with safeguarding and enforcing labor law in this country and let it slowly die the way that Michael and Colton have been laying out over the past half hour?
I’m getting pissed off about this because you guys know we talk every week to the people who were impacted by this. I remember talking to Chipotle workers crying on the phone to me because they were waiting to get a response after Chipotle, clearly and obviously, retaliated against them for unionizing. Closed their store. Don’t get me wrong, the NLRB managed to attend to that case in what is in retrospect a short amount of time, but every day counts, like you guys said. I heard the workers in their voices lose faith and feel like the bosses were winning and felt like they couldn’t hold on longer and had to go find another job and lose that dream of having a unionized store. Starbucks is perpetuating a corporate crime wave in broad daylight because they can. Again, I’m not going to try to get anyone in trouble.
The point is that time matters here. Resources matter. The ability of the NLRB and its staffers to do the jobs that they do at the level they need to do it and to be properly staffed and funded to carry out that work directly translates to working people being able to build power, form unions, stand up for themselves in their workplaces, and not have their rights willfully violated by employers left and right. This is a fundamental component of everything that we cover week in, and week out. So when I see more politicians proclaiming to be pro-labor and yet never once making the funding of the NLRB a central issue, then frankly, it’s all bullshit to me and I’m tired of hearing it.
Now here we are at the precipice of a government shutdown where the entire agency is going to basically be furloughed, more or less. Then, all the workers who are depending on it, and y’all, are going to be screwed. Once again, here’s the Republican Party trying to say oh, we’re the party of the working class now. We’re the populace. Also, let’s shut down the government over some far-right bullshit about the border so that all the workers in this country don’t have an agency to turn to when their bosses are violating their rights left and right. How pro-worker is that? What is the shutdown going to do for working people? I’m asking that to the listeners. Once again, I’m speaking here only for myself. I had to let off this steam because I’m about to go nuts here.
I know I only have y’all for a few more minutes and I want to use those few minutes to talk about the shutdown itself. Again, we’re recording this on Wednesday, September 27. We’re going to turn this around as quickly as we can. But it is looking like a shutdown will happen over the weekend. So I wanted to ask y’all while I’ve got you, what are you hearing? What are you expecting? What should people listening expect if a shutdown does happen, as it pertains to the NLRB, and how’s this going to affect working people?
Colton Puckett: One of the frustrating things about the run-up to the shutdown is everybody’s trying to read tea leaves, right? Everybody’s trying to predict what this, frankly, group of seemingly unpredictable people is going to do. So we don’t necessarily have any great insight to offer in terms of inside information or predicting what might happen. I agree with you. It seems increasingly likely to me, at least, that the shutdown is going to happen. Maybe some miracle happens at the last minute. I personally doubt it. Maybe Mike disagrees. I don’t know.
But the effect of that, if it does happen, is huge. It’s my understanding, that we essentially get half a day on Monday. We come into the office. We bring our agency devices. We make sure all of our files and everything are locked away and safe. We set up a voicemail. We set up an out-of-office email response. We try, to some extent, to notify the people that we’re working with, that if the government is shut down, not only will you not be able to reach us, but we cannot talk to you. We cannot do this work. So that is what it is. Then whatever period that’s done on Monday, we go home. We can’t do any work and we don’t get paid.
Frankly, there’s a large group of government employees who will continue to work and not get paid, which is insane to me. So all the things that I talked about before, investigating charges, running elections, doing trials, making sure that rights are being enforced, being there to answer somebody’s question, all of that is done. Technically the political appointees will still be working, of course, and then there’s a very small contingency of folks that continue to work. When I say small, I mean less than 10 or around 10, for the entire agency. Effectively, nothing is going to happen.
What happens in that time period to workers, who can say? My hope is that folks will… Our website, as far as I know, will be operational. I assume that is true. So folks can still access information there and can still make use of our e-filing system. Again, I could be wrong about that. Anything beyond that, you got to wait until we get back. It’s not like we don’t want to be doing the work. That’s the reality of the situation. It’s as frustrating for us both in terms of our own livelihoods. We’ve all got bills to pay. We all have families and folks that we look out for. So it’s frustrating and concerning in that respect. It’s also frustrating and concerning in terms of the people that we serve and the people that we try to help. To have it be completely out of our hands and subject to the whims of whomever, it’s an awful situation all around.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, it is. Throwing out one question that I’m sure is on people’s minds listening to this. Say workers at a given shop have filed for an NLRB election and the date was set for next Wednesday. Does that get delayed till the government’s back? What happens there? I’m sure people are concerned.
Michael Bilik: The rule of thumb, essentially, is that the only work that we are permitted to do – And again, it would be unpaid – In a shutdown, has to be necessary for the safety of life and protection of property or to protect some other… If we have some litigation going on in federal court, they’ll bring us in to try to convince the court that we can’t do anything if they try to enforce it. You might recall or may have read that federal courts actually are likely staying open for a couple of weeks because they can operate off the fees that they receive from people, so that’s why they stay open, but eventually, that runs out.
Anyway, for the most part, for the work that we do out in the field and interfacing with the public, as far as I know, as far as I’ve heard, yeah, we are not going to be running elections, and there is no time frame for when those elections will get rescheduled. If we’re in the middle, right now processing a representation case, where you’d filed a petition and we haven’t gotten to the point of doing anything…
As far as I know, again, we’re not speaking here on behalf of the agency and we actually, believe it or not, have not really been given any guidance on this yet because it’s one of these things that it’ll probably be a very last minute thing. We’re going to be contacting everybody on Monday once there’s actually a lapse in funding, to tell everybody exactly what’s happening in their case, if we even have time to do that because of the number of cases we each have. I would assume that a shutdown means that our folks, our staff, are 100% or nearly 100% prevented from doing mission work on top of everything else I described earlier. So you can imagine what that’s going to be like depending on when we come back if this happens. I don’t think there’s really an easy answer as to when. There’s not going to be people working to reschedule things and so it’s going to be a total clusterfuck.