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Politics threaten to cripple the NLRB

For more than 75 years, the National Labor Relations Board has been an arbiter of thousands of disputes between America's workers and their employers.

Created as part of the New Deal fashioned by President Franklin Roosevelt to regulate collective bargaining during the Depression, the NLRB was subsequently charged with uncovering unfair labor practices by companies and unions as well.

Why the history lesson? Because today the NLRB is on the verge of being rendered impotent by a faction of lawmakers who refuse to confirm the presidential appointments needed to give the agency a quorum. Without a quorum, the NLRB cannot settle important labor cases.

The NLRB is supposed to have five members, but has only three, which will drop to two when Craig Becker's term expires at the end of the year. Becker's was a recess appointment made by President Obama in March 2010 when the Senate could not agree to confirm his nomination.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) says he will keep blocking Obama's nominations to the NLRB until Congress investigates alleged collusion between the agency and the International Association of Machinists. Graham and other South Carolina politicians are still angry that the NLRB tried to prevent Boeing Co. from moving hundreds of aircraft jobs from Washington to their state.

Boeing and the machinists settled their argument earlier this month. The NLRB subsequently withdrew a lawsuit it had filed accusing the aircraft company of using the threat of moving jobs to gain union concessions. Now, Graham says dropping the lawsuit proves the NLRB was illegally in cahoots with the union.

"I have real concerns that the NLRB complaint was used as a negotiating tool against Boeing," Graham said. "It would be completely unacceptable for the NLRB, which is supposed to be an independent arbiter, to be used to help in the union's bidding."

A more objective view might be that the NLRB's intervention was what got Boeing and the union to reach mutually agreeable terms. Wasn't that the desirable outcome? Should the agency have continued with a lawsuit that had become moot merely to prove its independence from the union?

Obama has made two other NLRB nominations, Sharon Block and Richard F. Griffin Jr. But Becker's term will expire first, and those two may have to wait for recess appointments as well.

The NLRB serves an important role in protecting the interests of employers and employees. Of course, who is appointed to the NLRB makes a difference. But reasonable people ought to be able to work that out without crippling the agency in the interim.