Kent Hirozawa ’82 examines three Supreme Court labor cases in the Guarini Government Lecture

Kent Hirozawa ’82, former member of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), delivered this year’s annual Frank J. Guarini Government Lecture. When Hirozawa was confirmed to the NLRB in 2014, it was the first time in its recent history that the board had all five seats filled. In his lecture, Hirozawa looked at the history of the NLRB and how confirmation to the board has become more controversial and contested over time.

Kent Hirozawa speaking at a lectern
Kent Hirozawa '82

Hirozawa began by noting that there has been a significant decline in NLRB cases that have reached the Supreme Court in the past several decades. The drop is partially due to the fact that the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which established the board, is more than 80 years old and has not been substantively amended since 1959, Hirozawa said, and also due to the decrease in the proportion of the workforce represented by unions.

However, Hirozawa highlighted three particularly important NLRB cases that have come before the Supreme Court in recent years: New Process Steel v. NLRB, NLRB v. Noel Canning, and NLRB v. Southwest General. Each of these cases, Hirozawa explained, eventually arrived at the Supreme Court due to conflicts about recess appointments made to the NLRB and partisan controversies over the NLRB’s capacity to make rulings without a full quorum of members. “These three cases are part of an extraordinary series of events affecting a federal agency—and what they highlight is that the board and the act are situated in the midst of very strong cross currents in American politics and society,” he said.

Hirozawa noted that these cases demonstrate the disparity in attitudes towards the NLRB among US political parties. “There are some sectors of political opinion that have never accepted the legitimacy of the New Deal. There are some that may have seen the [NLRA] as a necessary evil to channel and regulate worker militancy at the time when it was enacted but is no longer needed. And there are some who simply see unions as outmoded impediments to the efficient functioning of a business,” Hirozawa said. “On the other hand, there are those who see unions as essential to the fair distribution of the rewards of the economy.”

On both sides of the political spectrum, Hirozawa added, the NLRB and the Act are seen as supportive of unions, which, he notes, is not surprising given that the Act protects union activity and encourages collective bargaining. This perception has given rise to “determined and passionate attacks on the agency and equally passionate support,” Hirozawa said. “Where it will all come out, I won’t pretend to know. But I think it’s safe to say that it’s far from over.” 

Posted December 15, 2017