"Still Fighting the New Deal"

In Konvitz Lecture, Liebman exploring future of American labor law
In Konvitz Lecture, Liebman exploring future of American labor law
Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Almost 78 years after its creation, the National Labor Relations Board remains a political lightning rod.

In her talk "Over the Cliff? What's Next for American Labor Law," Wilma Liebman, former chair of the board, will examine the effects of today's political polarization on the future of labor law.

Liebman will give the Milton Konvitz Memorial Lecture at 4:30 p.m. April 29 in 105 Ives Hall (view the livestream).

Liebman, the third-longest-serving member in the board's history, was appointed in 1997 to the panel, known as the NLRB.

She served as chairwoman from 2009 to 2011—a period that saw heightened assaults, not only on the panel, but also on worker rights, collective bargaining rights and unions.

The reasons for this, Liebman believes, are threefold—the more dynamic approach taken by the board in recent years; electoral politics and the association of organized labor with the Democratic Party, and the broader values-driven conflicts that have divided the country.

The panel, known by its acronym, "NLRB," was created by the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 to conduct workplace elections on unionization and investigate unfair labor practices.

"The statute, which addresses issues of inequality, is emblematic of class issues that surfaced during the last election," she says. "But, an equally significant conflict revolves around the role of government, particularly in relation to regulating the market and regulating business. To some extent, we’re still fighting the New Deal."

To Liebman, a pivotal question is whether the NLRB remains a politically viable institution. "I don't know the answer to that," she says. "I have my doubts."

She wonders whether "given the nature of the rhetoric and the lack of any kind of serious dialog on these issues, out of this crisis and difficulty could come the next big idea for workplace governance and labor relations."

Before her appointment to the labor board, Liebman was special assistant to the director, and then deputy director, of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. Earlier in her career, she served as labor counsel for the Bricklayers and Allied Craftsmen and legal counsel to the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Since completing her third term on the NLRB, she has taught at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and George Washington University Law School, from which she earned her legal degree.

In the fall, Liebman joins Cornell as a senior lecturer, with a joint appointment in ILR and the Law School.

At ILR, she will teach "Labor & Employment Law." At the Law School, she will teach "Contemporary Challenges in Labor and Employment Law," in which students consider the complexity of administering labor law in a politically polarized climate.

The Konvitz Lecture honors the late Professor Milton Konvitz, an expert in constitutional and labor law, and civil and human rights, who taught at ILR and the Law School from 1946 to 1973.

The lecture series was established in 2006 by a former Konvitz student, Irwin Jacobs BEE '56, co-founder of Qualcomm Inc., and Joan Jacobs HE '54, his wife. They live in San Diego.