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Trader Joe’s Attorney Argues National Labor Relations Board Is ‘Unconstitutional’

Trader Joe’s is facing a litany of union-busting charges before the National Labor Relations Board. The agency’s prosecutors have accused the company of illegally retaliating against workers, firing a union supporter and spreading false information in an effort to chill an organizing campaign.

But in a hearing last Tuesday, the grocer’s attorney briefly summarized a sweeping defense it intends to mount against the charges: The labor board itself, which was created during the New Deal and has refereed private-sector collective bargaining for nearly 90 years, is “unconstitutional.”

The argument would appear to fit inside a broader conservative effort to dismantle the regulatory state, which has taken aim at agencies tasked with enforcing laws to protect workers, consumers and the environment.

The exchange, a transcript of which HuffPost obtained through a public records request, came at the start of a trial to determine whether Trader Joe’s violated workers’ rights. Trader Joe’s’ attorney, Christopher Murphy of the law firm Morgan Lewis, informed the judge, Charles Muhl, that there was “one final thing” the grocery chain wanted to add to its defense before proceedings began.

“The National Labor Relations Act as interpreted and/or applied in this matter, including but not limited to the structure and organization of the National Labor Relations Board and the agency’s administrative law judges, is unconstitutional,” Murphy said.

Murphy added that the company was making the “affirmative defense” now so that it could argue it in full later. The company’s defense was first reported by Bloomberg.

The judge said he would allow it into the record, but left it at that.

“I’m certainly not going to be ruling on my own constitutionality anytime soon,” he deadpanned. “So you’ll have to take that up with the board and the federal courts.”

I see something really insidious here. Is Trader Joe’s onboard with what their law firm is doing?Seth Goldstein, attorney for Trader Joe's United

Trader Joe’s does not appear to have expanded on the defense yet during trial, and there are no briefs yet laying out its logic. But the company may be using an argument similar to one recently made in federal court by SpaceX, Elon Musk’s rocket company, which NLRB prosecutors have also accused of labor law violations. 

SpaceX claims that the NLRB violates the constitutional separation of powers as well as the right to due process, calling the board “the very definition of tyranny,” as Politico recently reported. 

An attorney for Trader Joe's said one of the companies defenses against union-busting charges is that the National Labor Relations Board is unconstitutional.
An attorney for Trader Joe's said one of the companies defenses against union-busting charges is that the National Labor Relations Board is unconstitutional.

An attorney for Trader Joe's said one of the companies defenses against union-busting charges is that the National Labor Relations Board is unconstitutional.

Like Trader Joe’s, SpaceX is represented by Morgan Lewis. The firm is known for its management-side work helping employers battle unions. Some of its highest-profile attorneys came out of the NLRB and served as conservative board members. 

A Trader Joe’s spokesperson did not immediately respond Friday when asked for comment.

Seth Goldstein, an attorney for Trader Joe’s United, the union that’s accused the grocer of illegal retaliation, told HuffPost he finds it disturbing that the idea of dismantling the NLRB has been “mainstreamed.” He said the argument would align Trader Joe’s with right-wing ideologues.

“I see something really insidious here,” said Goldstein, who’s with the firm Julien, Mirer, Singla and Goldstein. “Is Trader Joe’s onboard with what their law firm is doing?”

The NLRB is an independent federal agency that was created to protect workers’ rights and foster labor peace. It has both a prosecutorial office, which brings cases against employers and unions, and a 5-member board, which interprets the laws governing bargaining in the private sector. The agency’s administrative law judges issue rulings that can be appealed to the 5-member board for review.

The agency’s constitutionality was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1937, two years after it was created. However, these days, the court’s conservative supermajority has been chipping away at the regulatory state. (SpaceX’s claims track with some of the arguments made in a case involving the Securities and Exchange Commission that’s currently before the Supreme Court, SEC v. Jarkesy.)

Both employers and unions have plenty of gripes about the NLRB and board processes. But a determination that the NLRB itself is unconstitutional could throw labor relations into turmoil. Goldstein said the argument signals to Trader Joe’s workers that the company believes “our members don’t have the right to organize at all.”

“This is really dangerous,” Goldstein said. “Are we really going back to 1920?”

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