Center for American Progress

Project 2025 Would Undo the NLRB’s Progress on Protecting Workers’ Right To Organize

Project 2025 Would Undo the NLRB’s Progress on Protecting Workers’ Right To Organize

Workers are winning a greater percentage of NLRB-overseen union elections than at any point in the past 15 years as Biden administration appointees help protect workers' right to organize—but a conservative policy plan offers a blueprint for eroding the NLRB's ability to protect organizing workers.

Part of a Series
Union hall interior
UAW members attend a rally in support of the labor union strike at the UAW Local 551 hall on the South Side, October 2023, in Chicago. (Getty/Jim Vondruska)

This article is part of a series from the Center for American Progress exposing how the sweeping Project 2025 policy agenda would harm all Americans. This new authoritarian playbook, published by the Heritage Foundation, would destroy the 250-year-old system of checks and balances upon which U.S. democracy has relied and give far-right politicians, judges, and corporations more control over Americans’ lives.

As autoworkers, baristas, package carriers, Hollywood writers and actors, and thousands of other workers fight for and win new unions and new union contracts, Biden administration appointees to the nation’s front-line labor law enforcement agency—the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)—are helping prevent anti-union employers from undermining worker organizing. Workers in the United States face an uphill battle in their fight to unionize and bargain, as broken federal labor laws and rampant lawbreaking undermine their efforts, but workers today are organizing and winning union elections at a growing rate.

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New analysis from the Center for American Progress shows that the NLRB is helping ensure that workers can exercise their legal right to come together in unions, with more workers winning their elections and more workers getting help to get back on the job when fired illegally for protected organizing activity. However, these gains are under threat from The Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025—a playbook with strategies for eroding checks and balances across the government that offers instructions for gutting the NLRB’s enforcement capacity. This would threaten workers’ ability to come together in unions to bargain for better wages and working conditions.

According to CAP analysis of NLRB elections data, workers today have a better chance of winning their union representation election than at any point in the past 15 years, with a win rate of more than 70 percent. After a decline in the number of elections under the Trump administration, workers are back to holding more than 1,700 elections for union representation every year, and 115,000 workers voted in union elections in 2023, the largest number in a decade. As workers have pushed to form new unions, the NLRB has pursued a vigorous agenda of going after lawbreakers: It has won 54 percent more reinstatement offers for illegally fired workers since 2021 than during all four years of the previous administration, while instituting new rules that make it easier for workers to exercise their right to join a union.

The trend for the past several decades has been a weakening of labor law, stacking the deck in favor of corporations trying to bust unions. Businesses can use a range of legal tactics to persuade workers to vote against unionizing, and can even resort to illegally firing workers who try to organize their colleagues, since monetary penalties for breaking the law are nonexistent. Corporations are served by a cottage industry of professional “union avoidance” consultants, with law firms and consultants charging top dollar. One boutique consultant offers to potential clients to “show you how not only to win your election but also teach your staff advanced techniques for union avoidance to ensure your company never goes through a union election again.” And the Project 2025 policy playbook offers instructions for future administrations to neuter the NLRB’s enforcement capacity and turn it against unions by firing key agency leaders, making it easier to decertify unions, and closing off established ways of forming unions. However, under the leadership of Biden administration appointees, the NLRB has taken steps to advance, rather than stop, worker organizing. The NLRB is developing new rules that make it easier to form a union and win a contract, while actively protecting workers trying to organize.

What is the NLRB?

The NLRB is an independent agency that oversees nearly all union elections at U.S. private workplaces, issues regulations, and adjudicates cases involving alleged labor law violations. The agency is driven by a mission to protect “the rights of most private-sector employees to join together, with or without a union, to improve their wages and working conditions.”

Weaknesses in current law limit the NLRB’s ability to protect worker organizing—and thus must be reformed through policies such as the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act. Yet the agency still plays a critical role in ensuring that workers have a fair shot at organizing. NLRB rulings govern important aspects of organizing campaigns, such as where and how workers vote; how, where, and when they can discuss union matters or workplace conditions with colleagues; and whether certain corporate actions to undermine organizing campaigns or union actions constitute unfair labor practices.

For example, when an employer breaks the law while workers are trying to organize a union—and emloyers are charged with violating federal labor law in 41.5 percent of union election campaigns—the NLRB investigates and can issue orders to stop lawbreaking. It can also take other measures, such as reinstating illegally fired workers. In addition, the agency has the authority to engage in rulemaking, including to establish procedures and standards for all union elections it oversees. Altogether, the NLRB’s rulemaking and adjudicatory powers can have substantial impacts on an organizing drive’s chance of success.

In 2023, the union win rate in NLRB elections broke 70 percent for the first time in 15 years. As shown in Figure 1, the percentage of elections in which workers voted for a union in NLRB-overseen representation elections has generally been around 64 percent since 2008. The rate has climbed from 65.2 percent in 2020 to 72.1 percent in 2023 and 73.8 percent so far in 2024, meaning that workers filing for a union election today are winning a greater percentage of elections than at any point since 2009.

The win rate has been consistently higher under the Biden administration than under the previous administration. As shown in Figure 2, while workers won 66.1 percent of their union elections from 2017 to 2020, workers have won 70.3 percent of all elections since 2021.

Not only are workers more likely to win their union election, but there are also more elections today than at any time since 2015. Figure 3 shows how the number of union representation elections decreased from 2017 to 2020; however, in the past two years, the number of elections held each year shot up past prepandemic levels, reaching 1,777 total elections in 2023.

The means that more workers are participating in union elections, with 2023 marking the first year in which more than 100,000 workers voted in a union election since 2017. Although the number of workers voting in representation elections began trending down in 2017 and reached a low of 59,763 during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021, the number of workers who voted in a representation election reached 115,472 in 2023—a 10-year high and a 93 percent increase since the Biden administration took office in 2021. During this same year, workers participated in some of the largest labor actions in recent decades: 60,000 workers in the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) went on strike in the summer; 46,000 members of United Auto Workers (UAW) went on strike at Ford, Stellantis, and General Motors to achieve their new contract; and 300,000 Teamsters were covered by a new United Parcel Service (UPS) contract.

The number of workers participating in union elections has increased as the NLRB has expanded the range of workers eligible to join a union. During the previous administration, the NLRB nearly succeeded in finalizing a rule that would have prevented student workers at private colleges and universities from unionizing. The NLRB withdrew the rule during the Biden administration—and a recent report from the Economic Policy Institute found that since 2022, nearly 45,000 student workers at private colleges and universities have unionized. The NLRB also changed a standard from 2019 that allowed many workers to be classified as independent contractors—who are unable to unionize—rather than as regular employees. The antiworker Project 2025 advises undoing this change, which would harm workers’ ability to come together in unions.

Even though the current state of federal labor law—as well as years of effective budget cuts—have reduced the NLRB’s ability to go after lawbreakers, the agency has increased its efforts to investigate and punish corporations that break the law and to institute new rules to better protect workers. Under the leadership of General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo, appointed with the specific charge to “help rebuild America’s middle class,” the agency’s enforcement arm has demonstrated increased willingness to go after lawbreakers. The NLRB achieved more reinstatement offers for workers illegally fired for protected organizing activity in the general counsel’s first year on the job than during the entire previous administration: In just three years, it brought a total of 8,285 offers of reinstatement for workers fired for legally protected activity such as attempting to form a union or discussing workplace issues, a 54 percent increase over the previous administration. In spite of this success, Project 2025 recommends firing the general counsel “on Day One” as part of its plans to upend much of the civil service, which would threaten the NLRB’s ability to protect workers trying to organize for good, middle-class jobs.

Project 2025 recommends firing the general counsel "on Day One" as part of its plans to upend much of the civil service, which would threaten the NLRB's ability to protect workers trying to organize for good, middle-class jobs.

The NLRB has brought cases against some of the nation’s largest corporations to protect workers in high-profile organizing campaigns. NLRB Region 3 brought a case against Starbucks, alleging the company violated labor law while baristas were organizing their unions. Thanks to the NLRB’s complaint, an administrative law judge in 2023 ordered the company to give reinstatement offers to workers who were fired illegally, begin bargaining with the union, reopen a facility that was illegally closed, and even have executives Howard Schultz and Denise Nelson read the notice about the complaint issued by the NLRB and an explanation of rights to workers after finding that the company violated the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) “hundreds of times” and displayed “egregious and widespread misconduct demonstrating a general disregard for the employees’ fundamental rights.” NLRB Region 29, meanwhile, brought a case against Amazon, alleging retaliation against warehouse workers trying to organize in Staten Island; an administrative law judge in 2023 that found Amazon violated the NLRA by retaliating against employees who supported the Amazon Labor Union and even “disparaged the Union by using appeals to racial prejudice and derogatory racial stereotyping.”

The NLRB’s enforcement agenda goes beyond legal action against lawbreakers. The agency has engaged in rulemaking, case rulings, and outreach to other federal agencies to modernize and simplify the work of forming a union and counteract years of corporate efforts to undermine or curtail workers’ organizing rights under the law.

During the previous administration, the NLRB issued complicated rules that slowed the election process for workers—and Project 2025 recommends doubling down on rules that make it harder for workers to unionize. These rules gave anti-union corporations more opportunities to fight workers’ organizing campaigns and reduce the likelihood of union victory. In addition, previous NLRB appointees adopted rules that made it easier for large corporations to escape liability for labor violations and avoid bargaining obligations by relying on smaller companies—such as franchisees, temporary staffing agencies, and labor contractors—to supply their labor forces, which the NLRB has taken steps to prevent. Project 2025 recommends reversing these steps, which would make it more difficult for workers to organize unions.

The NLRB is working to reassert workers’ rights under the NLRA—including by accelerating the process for forming a union and proposing bans on key union-busting techniques such as captive audience meetings, which coerce workers by forcing them to listen to anti-union propaganda, and surveillance of union organizers. Compared with this pro-worker agenda, Project 2025 instructs the next administration to eliminate procedures such as card checks, which make it easier to form a union, and would turn the administrative state against unions by accelerating the process to decertify them when workers have won a contract.

Congress must fund the NLRB

Funding allocated by Congress for the NLRB peaked at $283.4 million in fiscal year 2010 and leveled off to $274 million in fiscal year 2014, with no increase since. In actuality, this flat funding represents a decline due to inflation, as the 2014 funds would have been worth $334 million in 2022 dollars. In 2023, the Biden administration signed a budget that included the agency’s first increase in budget in nearly a decade—to $299 million. The administration’s budget this year asks for an additional increase to $320 million, which would help the agency carry out its important pro-worker activities, but even greater funding increases will be necessary to reverse the decline in staffing levels: The agency has lost 30 percent of its workforce over the past decade, mostly in the regional offices where most front-line enforcement activity takes place.

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Workers want to unionize, and they have done so with increasing success under the current leadership of the NLRB. The NLRB’s agenda for achieving its mission to protect collective bargaining rights under the law aligns with popular sentiment and the Biden administration’s efforts to empower workers and protect the right to organize. The agency has been a key part of the administration’s strategy for empowering workers and supporting unions, with crucial appointees taking the fight to corporations that for decades have been too successful at busting unions before they can form. However, there is always a risk that future administrations reverse course—and Project 2025 offers a playbook for how an administration could jeopardize the NLRB’s ability to protect organizing workers.

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Aurelia Glass

Policy Analyst, Inclusive Economy


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