The Retirement of George Miller: A Retrospective on One of Labor's Most Persistent Advocates in Congress

Published February 20th, 2014 -  - 02.20.143


Last month, Congressman George Miller announced that he was retiring from the House of Representatives after 40 years of service. Miller has served on the House Education and Workforce Committee since entering Congress in 1975 –  serving as Chairman from 2007 to 2010 and Ranking Member since then – becoming one of the most influential voices on labor in Congress.

For example, soon after he became Chairman, Miller joined with Senator Ted Kennedy in 2007 to pass legislation increasing the federal minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7.25 an hour – the first increase in the minimum wage in ten years. Today, in the minority, Miller is one of the leaders of Democrats’ efforts to further increase the minimum wage, including by reaching out to Walmart to join the coalition working toward the change (Miller and others successfully brought Walmart on board in 2007). He has emphasized that the welfare of low-wage workers motivate these efforts, noting that they “work very hard, in difficult and very dirty jobs, [but] at the end of a year of working full time, they end up in poverty.”

Miller also wrote and sheparded to passage the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first bill signed into law by President Obama. The law overturned a controversial 2007 Supreme Court opinion, Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., which held that a plaintiff cannot bring a salary discrimination suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when the discriminatory pay decisions occurred outside the 180-day statute of limitations. In a “stingingdissent read from the bench, Justice Ginsburg argued that the majority did “not comprehend, or [wa]s indifferent to, the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination.” The legislation Miller wrote removed the barrier posed by the Supreme Court’s narrow reading of the statute of limitations, making lawsuits by female workers who experienced pay discrimination during their careers much more likely to succeed.

Moreover, as Chairman of the Education and Workforce Committee, Miller served as a”key author of the education portion of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009,” also known as the “stimulus bill,” which “poured some $100 billion into education.” While some teachers unions have criticized portions of the law – such as Race to the Top – and other Miller efforts on education for promoting charter schools and merit pay, Miller contended that the bill saved or created hundreds of thousands of “teaching and other education-related jobs.” More broadly, the Council of Economic Advisors recently released a report finding that the law  added “about 6 million ‘job years’ (a full-time job for a full year)” to the U.S. economy through the end of 2012. 

Additionally, Miller served as a “primary co-author” of the Affordable Care Act. Here at On Labor, we have extensively covered the importance of the law to workers and unions, from its potential to give “companies a way to provide a better, more stable deal on health insurance to their employees” to union complaints about the law to the health care choices the health care exchanges provide to workers to the use of the Medicaid expansion by unions and their allies as a campaign issue.

Not all of Miller’s efforts involving major labor-related legislation were successful. Miller was a co-author of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would “enable employees to form unions through a procedure known as ‘card check,’” meaning that “if a majority of workers in a relevant unit sign authorization cards solicited in an open process by union organizers and other employees, the employer would be legally obligated to recognize the union as the employees’ collective representative.” EFCA was organized labor’s top priority for the Obama Administration, and Miller led the charge for it, arguing that “current law does not adequately protect workers’ freedom of association” and EFCA would “ensure economic progress for the people who are the backbone of the U.S. economy.”  Although it failed to pass the Senate, Miller’s Committee and the full House of Representatives approved the legislation.

Finally, Miller has successfully supported the objectives of organized labor even while in the congressional minority – leading some observers to marvel at the “staunch ally of Big Labor, who has quietly proven his might despite” Republican control of the House. For instance, he doggedly pursued allegations that Terence Flynn, a Republican appointee to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), illicitly provided “confidential pre-trial information” to  Peter Schaumber, “a co-chair of the Labor Policy Advisory Group for the Mitt Romney Presidential campaign.” Schaumber, a former Republican appointee to the NLRB, “used [the information] in political attacks on the Board.” Miller and others pressed for Inspector General investigations, the public release of the results of these investigations, and ultimately for Flynn’s resignation, calling the improprieties “the most corrosive scandal in the agency’s history.” Miller’s actions dovetailed with the goals of union leaders, such as AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who called for Flynn and Schaumber to step down from their respective posts. Sure enough, Miller’s efforts, along with allies such as Congressman Elijah Cummings, Ranking Member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Senator Tom Harkin, Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, helped bring about Flynn’s resignation from the NLRB and Schaumber’s resignation from the Romney campaign.

The list could go on and on. Clearly, Miller has had a hand in every big legislative battle for labor in the modern era. With his Senate Democratic counterpart and fellow staunch union ally, Tom Harkin, also retiring at the end of the year, it seems clear that the primary voices on labor issues in Congress are certain to change in 2015.

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