President Biden made an impassioned call for unity in an inaugural address that was praised across the media for reaffirming institutional norms. Yet within hours of being sworn in, Biden broke well-established precedents to fire a top Labor Department official at the behest of his union allies.
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Almost immediately after Biden took over, administration officials gave Peter Robb, general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, an ultimatum that if he did not resign by 5 p.m., he would be fired. Robb declined to resign and was immediately let go.
Historically, the position has been considered independent, and the counsel is only replaced upon expiration of a term.
“Unions despise Robb and wanted to see him ousted quickly, even though presidents usually do not fire the NLRB’s general counsel, who acts as a quasi-prosecutor,” the Huffington Post reported. “Robb had more than nine months left in his four-year term at the board.”
In a letter explaining why he was refusing to resign, Robb wrote, “The removal of an incumbent General Counsel of the NLRB prior to the expiration of the term by a President of the United States is unprecedented since the nascence of the National Labor Relation Act (NLRA) and the NLRB. One of the key amendments to the NLRA that occurred in 1947 was to create an independent General Counsel.”
He went on to write that, “The removal of a General Counsel would set an unfortunate precedent for the labor relations of this country that will permanently undermine the structure and thus the proper functioning of the NLRB and the NLRA. In particular, such action undermines Congress’s intent that the Office of the General Counsel be independent of the Board and the Executive Branch so that the General Counsel, as chief prosecutor of the NLRA, can prosecute potential violations of the NLRA free from political influence and pressure.”
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But unions had been agitating throughout the transition for Biden to oust him prematurely. The Service Employees International Union, in a December letter to the Biden transition team obtained by the Huffington Post, demanded he be fired, calling him an “extreme, anti-union ideologue.”
Though typically an unknown position out of Washington, the general counsel plays an influential role in enforcing labor law through prosecutions and settlements. During the Obama administration, the position was frequently used to pursue the interests of unions, as it did with an ill-advised suit against Boeing for opening a manufacturing plant in South Carolina.
Moreover, it may be an early sign of how Biden intends to govern — speaking publicly in lofty tones about unity, while out of the public eye, he smashes norms to further left-wing policy goals.