May 1, 2013

Lecturer says labor law divide is sign of broader conflict

Rachel Philipson
Wilma Leibman, former chair of the National Labor Relations Board, delivers the Milton Konvitz Memorial Lecture April 29.

Why is the National Labor Relations Board still a political lightning rod?

That’s a question Wilma Liebman, former NLRB chair, addressed in her Milton Konvitz Memorial Lecture, “Over the Cliff: What’s Next for American Labor Law?,” April 29 at the ILR School.

At the heart of the issue, she says, is that the country is very divided on the subject of labor law.

“It’s emblematic of broader divides in society and tensions over liberty versus equality, those who believe in individual liberty and opportunity and those who think public should be used to help out the private,” Liebman said.

This clash of ideals, she added, connects directly to Konvitz, a founding ILR faculty member whose teachings focused on constitutional law and civil and human rights.

Another key challenge is that the NLRB has not had a fully confirmed, five-member board in 10 years, making it difficult for the board to conduct its business, Liebman said.

It’s “virtually impossible” for President Barack Obama to get people appointed to the NLRB, she said, because of filibustering.

She explained that Obama did make three NLRB appointments during a Congressional recess at the end of 2011. The president’s move was controversial and resulted in litigation. In January, the court ruled that the appointments were invalid.

In addition, Liebman noted, more than two dozen bills have been introduced that would weaken the board’s authority. “The recent battles of the last five years have been exceptional, and exceptionally rancorous,” she said. “There are many out there who would rather see the board become dysfunctional … and who say the NLRB is regulating business to death. To listen to the rhetoric, you’d think the board has had a dagger pointed at the free market.”

While Liebman believes that labor law has enduring value, she says the question remains: How do we get past this divide? She said she doesn’t have an answer, but it won’t happen with “one side forcing it on the other.”

“There don’t seem to be too many cases where labor and business are talking to each other. Labor, business and academia must come together. Without this happening, we’re never going to move from the status quo.”

As for the future of labor law, Liebman said there is much uncertainty in the short term, “where every appointment becomes a battleground.”

Whether this New Deal model of an administrative agency is still viable will need to be more fully examined, Liebman said. Students studying at ILR and going into the field, she said, give her hope: “You bring some excitement and a spirit of innovation, and new ways of looking at these issues.”

Liebman, who returns to Cornell in the fall as a senior lecturer at ILR and at the Law School, said it is “really an honor to have this opportunity to be here in tribute to Milton Konvitz. I found the last lecture Konvitz gave, and I was so inspired by the beauty of his words and the depth of his scholarship.”

Irwin Jacobs ’54, co-founder of Qualcomm Inc., and Joan Jacobs ’54 founded the lecture series in 2006.

Joe Zappala is assistant dean of communications and marketing at the ILR School.