New Philadelphia regional NLRB director escapes D.C. politics

Dennis Walsh is the Phila. area's new NLRB director.
Dennis Walsh is the Phila. area's new NLRB director.
Posted: April 23, 2013

Sometimes it's great to be away from the main office.

Like, for example, when the home office is the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, where a court decision, pending legislation, and political paralysis are calling into question the board's ability to function.

"It's a lot of uncertainty," Dennis Walsh said with the understatement of a man well-practiced in dodging political land mines.

On Friday, Walsh, 58, was sworn in as the new regional director of the NLRB. His territory covers South Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania, and he will work from an office in Philadelphia on Independence Mall.

It is Walsh's job to carry out the NLRB's mission at the grassroots level - to supervise union elections, adjudicate grievances, and protect employees, even those who aren't in unions, when they decide to join together to discuss or improve their workplaces.

A career labor relations board lawyer, Walsh, a Democrat, has served on the national five-member NLRB board twice - once appointed by President Bill Clinton during a congressional recess in December 2000, and the second time appointed by President George W. Bush during a recess in January 2006.

Similar recess appointments, made by President Obama in January 2012, are those now facing challenges in the court and on Capitol Hill.

"We are on the brink of having a situation where there is an NLRB but [not] enough members to make decisions," Walsh said.

Which is why, given all that's going on, he would rather be in Philadelphia.

"I prefer it at this level because we're farther removed from the politics," he said. "This is a permanent job. I'm not going to be thrown out when a term ends."

Also, he said, the regional level is where labor-law policy begins to be shaped, because the regional director decides when the U.S. government can file a complaint against an employer for violations of the National Labor Relations Act.

"So far," he said, "no court has questioned our authority to do so, whether there's a quorum of [national] board members or not."

In January 2012, Obama appointed three members to the five-member board, joining the chairman, Mark Pearce, the only member then serving who had been confirmed by the Senate, as the law requires.

A year later, on Jan. 25, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia made a controversial ruling that challenged the practice of recess appointments to the NLRB.

In Noel Canning v. the NLRB, the court ruled that the board's February 2012 decision against the Pepsi-Cola bottling company would have to be thrown out because the board lacked a quorum of Senate-confirmed members and therefore had no authority.

The ruling caused an uproar in employment law circles because it called into question nearly every decision the NLRB had made since early 2012.

Appealing the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, the NLRB took the position that Obama's NLRB appointments were valid and that the appellate court's decision applied only to the Noel Canning case. In the meantime, the board is still making decisions.

One local case that could be affected relates to Memorial Hospital of Salem County. On March 22, the national NLRB upheld a local administrative law judge's ruling that required the hospital to negotiate with the hospital employees' union Health Professionals and Allied Employees.

Meanwhile, on April 12, the Republican-dominated U.S. House passed the Preventing Greater Uncertainty in Labor-Management Relations Act. It forbids the NLRB from making decisions until the Supreme Court resolves the Noel Canning case or until the Senate approves two nominees Obama appointed this month.

The bill and the appointments now face Senate action.

"That's politics, and we're not supposed to comment on politics," Walsh said.

While the controversy continues in Washington, Walsh is adjusting to his job in Philadelphia.

His son recently graduated from St. Joseph's University, and the two plan to share an apartment, in Old City or East Falls.

The arrangement will work, Walsh said, because he'll be leaving Philadelphia most weekends to commute to the family home outside Washington, where his wife still works as an NLRB lawyer. His daughter is a high school senior.

These days, Walsh is reacquainting himself with the city where he spent much of his early legal career. In the mid-1980s, he worked as an NLRB field lawyer in Philadelphia. From 1989 to 1994, he was in private practice with Spear Wilderman PC, a Philadelphia law firm specializing in union work, before heading to Washington in various NLRB positions.

Philadelphia "is a union city," said Walsh, who started his regional director's job in March. "One of the charges we see in this region, more than other regions, are charges of unlawful picketing.

"Now there's much less of that now than I saw when I was a young field attorney [in Philadelphia]," he said, "but there are much more than in other regions because it's an active union city and the construction unions are very active here."

Walsh, who was raised in Upstate New York, attended Cornell University's law school with the idea of being a legal services lawyer, working in poverty law.

"I found being a legal services lawyer is a lot like putting a lot of Band-Aids on problems . . . and that's a little frustrating," he said.

So he took a break from law school and went into community organizing. "I got the organizing bug" to help advance the disadvantaged, he said.

But, he added, organizers, whether for communities or unions, don't make much money and they work all the time - not a lifestyle or salary conducive to having a family.

"I aspired in theory" to be an organizer, he said. "In another life, I would like to be a folksinger and a labor organizer, but I can't play the guitar, and oh, I can't sing, either."

Contact Jane Von Bergen at 215-854-2769,, or follow @JaneVonBergen on Twitter. Read her workplace blog at

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