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Federal agency that oversees unions will get first funding boost in a decade

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Starbucks workers on strike at a Starbucks coffee shop in Brooklyn, New York.

The funding increase for the National Labor Relations Board comes at a time of high-profile labor organizing. Above, Starbucks workers on strike in Brooklyn, New York, in November. Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

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The federal agency that oversees labor union activity will have its budget bumped up in the coming year as part of the omnibus spending bill passed by Congress last week.

The National Labor Relations Board processes union petitions, conducts union elections, makes sure collective bargaining is conducted fairly and investigates possible violations of federal labor law. But over the last decade or so, its resources have been stretched thinner — which advocates say has constrained the agency’s ability to perform those functions.

Until this $25 million increase, NLRB funding hadn’t changed in almost a decade. That led to a 30% drop in staffing levels, according to Karla Walter at the Center for American Progress.

“This is particularly important in this moment in history because we’re seeing that unions are more popular than they’ve been in decades,” she said.

Union membership has trended down since the ’70s, but petitions to unionize surged by more than 50% last fiscal year as high-profile organizing efforts took off at companies like Starbucks. 

Strike activity and complaints of unfair labor practices have also increased in recent years, per Kate Bronfenbrenner at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

“They have more work than they’ve had in decades,” she said.

The less staff the NLRB has, Bronfenbrenner said, the longer it takes to investigate and resolve complaints. “If a worker is fired for union activity or an employer illegally locks workers out, to deal with those cases can take years.”

The agency argues that delays harm workers — and employers — by postponing what can end up being a decision in their favor. 

Delays can have a chilling effect on organizing, according to Harvard law professor Sharon Block, who served on the NLRB during the Barack Obama administration.

“If the agency that’s supposed to protect your rights doesn’t have the resources to ensure that happens, the result is that those rights become illusory, right? They become meaningless,” she said.

The funding increase Congress approved will likely avert the predicted need for staff furloughs in the coming year, she said. But it still falls short of the amount the Joe Biden administration said is needed to strengthen the agency’s enforcement powers.

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