The Biden administration fired the National Labor Relations Board’s general counsel, Peter Robb, breaking with precedent to end the tenure of a figure seen as a foe by worker advocates and labor unions. Robb’s deputy, Alice B. Stock, was also fired after refusing to resign.
The fracas at the NLRB, an important but normally staid body that is tasked with upholding workers’ rights to organize and overseeing union elections, began just hours into Biden’s presidency, when the administration asked Robb, a Trump appointee, to resign 10 months before his term expired.
The move marked a departure from the norm that presidents of both parties have followed to allow the general counsel to serve out their term.
Robb refused, calling the request “unprecedented since the nascence of the National Labor Relations Act” and saying his removal “would set an unfortunate precedent,” in a letter he sent the White House.
Biden had told Robb he should step down by 5 p.m. or he would be fired, the White House said, news of which was first reported by Bloomberg Law. By 8:45 p.m., the general counsel position on the NLRB’s online organizational chart was listed as “vacant.”
On Thursday, an NLRB spokesman announced that Alice B. Stock, who was Robb’s deputy, had also been fired after refusing to resign by the end of the day as she had been asked.
Biden will now need to nominate a replacement for the general counsel seat, a crucial Senate-confirmed position that prosecutes cases in front of the NLRB and therefore has immense say over its regulatory might.
Labor groups and congressional Democrats celebrated Robb’s dismissal and hailed it as a welcome departure from Trump administration policies that were hostile toward workers and unions.
“A union-busting lawyer by trade, Robb mounted an unrelenting attack for more than three years on workers’ right to organize and engage in collective bargaining,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a statement. “His actions sought to stymie the tens of millions of workers who say they would vote to join a union today and violated the stated purpose of the National Labor Relations Act—to encourage collective bargaining. Robb’s removal is the first step toward giving workers a fair shot again.”
Republicans decried Robb’s firing and said Biden was jeopardizing the agency’s independence.
Rep. Virginia Foxx (N.C.), the ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, called Biden’s request for Robb’s resignation “inappropriate” and an “outrageous ultimatum.”
“I urge President Biden to rescind this ill-advised and divisive action against a Senate-confirmed official and allow General Counsel Robb to finish the job he was appointed to do independently and free from political influence,” Foxx said in a statement.
Some pointed out that President Barack Obama did not fire Ronald Meisburg, the board’s top prosecutor who was appointed by President George W. Bush and served out his term, which lasted more than a year after the Democrat took office.
In her letter declining to resign that was distributed by the NLRB, Stock questioned the legality of Robb’s firing and sharply criticized the Biden administration for departing from the norm.
“[I]t would be detrimental to the operations of the NLRB for me to resign my position as Deputy General Counsel at this time,” she wrote. “I would have expected a more civil and professional approach to the transition from this administration.”
Robb did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
Biden, who pledged on the eve of the election to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen,” has sought to appeal to working-class Americans and reorient federal policy to strengthen their hand.
Robb, a former management lawyer who was involved in President Ronald Reagan’s battle against the air traffic controllers union, did not fit with this approach.
Seen by labor advocates as someone who was focused on hampering the enforcement of rules he was sworn to uphold, Robb had brought a staunchly employer-friendly approach to the board. He sought to curtail union use of “Scabby the rat” (the inflatable used by some unions during strikes), urged the board to limit employees’ protected union activity, and sought to restrict employees’ use of company email to discuss workplace issues, according to a report from the Economic Policy Institute.
The general counsel’s division of advice also issued memos over the summer that sided with employers in two cases where workers were discharged after raising coronavirus-related safety complaints.
When asked about the firing at a press briefing on Thursday, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Robb was not upholding the mission of the NLRB.
“That’s an individual who was not carrying out ― anyone would tell you, not just from our administration ― the objectives of the NLRB,” she said.
Brandon Magner, a labor lawyer who writes the newsletter Labor Law Lite, said the agency had lost a quarter of its staff since Robb took over, which had limited its enforcement of the law
“Robb’s mission in accepting the general counsel job wasn’t just to reverse Obama Board decisions and create pro-management precedent. It was to destroy the agency as we currently know it,” Magner wrote Thursday. “Robb’s firing is being described as a political power play by Biden, and maybe it is in some respect. But it was more so an action to protect the agency from permanent incapacitation.”
Major labor unions, like the Service Employees International Union and the Communications Workers of America, were among those to raise concerns during Robb’s tenure, and they had pushed Biden to sack him.