Mr. Biden: Fire Peter Robb
A plea for change at the NLRB
Dear President-elect Biden,
Congratulations! You did it. You rebuilt the Blue Wall, flipped a couple of southern states, and won a popular vote landslide. You have quite a lot on your plate, but there’s one little thing to which I’d like to call your attention.
In September, you promised a group of workers you’d be the “strongest labor president” ever. Sadly, that’s a pretty easily achievable title given our labor history. Some of the work to support labor will require the cooperation of Congress, some of it you can do on your own.
One thing that can be done absent Congressional cooperation is a sorely needed change at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Since November 2017, Peter B. Robb, an employer-side labor attorney, has been the NLRB’s General Counsel. His tenure in that office should come to a swift end shortly after your tenure as President commences.
Mr. President-elect, I’m asking you to fire Peter Robb.
A history of anti-worker action
As you likely know, Mr. President-elect, Mr. Robb first came to national attention in the 1980s as a key player in arguably the most egregious example ever of Executive Branch union-busting. He represented the Reagan administration in breaking the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike and firing thousands of air traffic controllers.
The PATCO union-busting was a turning point in American labor history and sparked the wave of anti-unionism that has persisted for the past 30 years. Mr. Robb continued riding that wave in his capacity as a management-side attorney. His history of opposing workers’ right to organize and bargain inspired Donald Trump to appoint him to the NLRB General Counsel’s office.
The General Counsel is responsible for the investigation and prosecution of unfair labor practice cases. Since Robb’s 2017 appointment, it has instead been used to advance a crusade against workers’ rights.
Robb’s NLRB sued Oregon over a law protecting workers from a common anti-union tactic used by employers. They also allowed a hotel to proceed with an unfair and questionably legal mass termination of employees after the pandemic hit this year. His office has employed faulty logic to deliberately make negotiating first contracts more difficult. For crying out loud, Mr. President-elect, Peter Robb has even gone after beloved picket line presence “Scabby the Rat.”
Firing Peter Robb has proven useful in the past
In California’s coastal Santa Cruz County, nestled in the Pajaro Valley between strawberry fields and a small airport, sits Watsonville Community Hospital (WCH). It’s a small hospital, around 100 beds, serving the agricultural community of Watsonville.
In 2003, I moved to California to begin a career as a labor union organizer and was assigned to represent workers at WCH. Approximately 100 Certified Nurse Aides, housekeepers, food service workers, and technicians in the laboratory, pharmacy, emergency department, and operating room were in the bargaining unit.
After I’d been there a year, we commenced regular re-negotiation of our Collective Bargaining Agreement with the hospital’s management. The members of our union were united behind demands for fully employer-paid health insurance, defined benefit pensions, protections from layoffs, and a voice in staffing — all industry standards throughout Northern California hospitals at the time.
The hospital was owned by a Tennessee-based for-profit corporation that, it’s safe to say, was unaccustomed to the hospital labor market in California and quite resistant to agreeing to area labor standards. As OR Technician and bargaining committee member Butch Cole described it:
“I’ve worked as an OR Tech for decades, and I love caring for my patients. However, WCH makes it difficult for me and my co-workers to make a decent living and to have a retirement pension that we can count on because WCH is at the bottom of the barrel when compared to other local hospitals. They’re putting profits before patients, and it’s just not right. If other hospital corporations can do the right thing, so can WCH.”
To lead their negotiation team, WCH hired none other than Peter Robb. Mr. Robb was in his mid-50s at the time and I was blissfully unaware of his history with PATCO. The most remarkable thing I remember about him is that the soles of his shoes consistently looked like they were threadbare and on the verge of collapse.
For months, our bargaining team sat across from Mr. Robb negotiating the details of the contract. We sparred over pay rates, patient safety, and the minutiae of contract language. Progress was exceedingly slow and our members began undertaking an escalating series of actions to force movement from the employer.
After a variety of attempts to move forward and multiple violations of the National Labor Relations Act that Mr. Robb is now charged with enforcing, our members finally voted overwhelmingly in favor of a 24-hour strike. A mediator was summoned and we attempted to bargain a settlement without striking, but Mr. Robb offered neither movement nor compromise.
Workers walked out at 7 AM the day after bargaining collapsed. The incredibly successful strike built pride and solidarity among the WCH caregivers. We marched and chanted and barbecued and sang. The strike attracted community support and positive media coverage. Members returned to work the next day feeling incredibly empowered.
The day of the strike was also the last day any of us ever saw Peter Robb in person again. I’m not entirely sure what transpired between Mr. Robb and the hospital’s owners, but he was swiftly replaced by another attorney from a different firm. The tenor and pace of negotiations shifted. The hospital made good faith efforts to find common ground. We settled a contract and achieved the goals for which our members had struck.
It turns out that all it took for workers to benefit was a little collective action and the firing of Peter Robb.
Simply put, Mr. President-elect, a person with Peter Robb’s anti-worker history has no business holding a leadership position at an agency that describes itself as “vested with the power to safeguard employees’ rights to organize.”
Thanks to the courageous caregivers at Watsonville Community Hospital in 2004, we have evidence that working people benefit when Peter Robb is fired. And thanks to Mr. Robb’s NLRB, you’ll clearly have a right as his employer to terminate his services.
On Day One of the Biden-Harris administration, I implore you to remove Peter Robb and replace him with an NLRB General Counsel who’ll actually fight for workers’ rights.
UPDATE: President Biden has been in the White House for less than an hour and he’s already taken action to remove Robb. Thanks, Mr. President!