For anyone under the false impression that Donald Trump’s courtship of the white working class meant he would break with his party’s anti-union animus and employer favoritism, his nomination of Peter Robb as the general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board should have been a rude awakening. To say Robb was a management-side labor lawyer is like saying Babe Ruth was a ballplayer: In 1981, he was the lead federal government attorney in the Reagan administration’s successful effort to break a strike of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization. The administration then placed the strikers under a lifetime reemployment ban (lifted by Bill Clinton in 1993). As the most conspicuous government assault on workers’ rights since Calvin Coolidge broke the Boston police strike, the PATCO case was one of the great symbols of the new conservative hegemony in Washington that Reagan represented.
After this big moment, Robb went back to a legal career focused on representing employers against workers in a broad range of cases, as New York’s Sarah Jones observed: “Before he was general counsel, Robb once worked as a special labor counsel for Proskauer Rose, a notoriously anti-union law firm. Proskauer Rose attorneys have, at different points in the firm’s bleak history, represented Volkswagen, Columbia University, the NFL, and the NBA in battles with existing unions or organizing drives.”
But he happily resumed his Washington career of worker harassment and union busting when appointed by Trump, compiling quite a record — summarized by one critic who wrote an open letter to Biden asking that Robb be fired:
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.”
Indeed, as Jones reported, giving this advocate of employer firing rights his own walking papers had become a test of Biden’s pro-labor bona fides until such time as actual legislation could be enacted:
[Labor leaders] agree that no matter who Biden chooses as Labor secretary, there are steps that person, and the administration, could take to protect workers right away. [Sara Nelson of the Flight Attendants union] told Intelligencer that she thinks Biden has the power to fire Peter Robb, the management-side attorney who now serves as general counsel for the National Labor Relations Board before his term expires in another year. With Robb gone, the NLRB could restore union election rules that Trump overturned on taking office, and remove an obstacle to unionization in the process.
Well, Biden passed the test. He demanded that Robb resign, and when Robb refused (citing his unexpired term), Biden fired him on his first day in office, to the predictable glee of those Robb had tormented while at the NLRB.
I don’t know much about the strength of Robb’s legal argument against his dismissal. But it’s clear that having defended the right of employers to fire countless employees over the years, he doesn’t come to his own case with clean hands.