An article on yesterday's Federal Page understated the backlog of cases at the National Labor Relations Board. The total backlog is 651 cases. (Published 12/31/1999)

When John C. Truesdale joined the National Labor Relations Board as a young field examiner in 1948, Harry S. Truman was president, Laurence Olivier won the Oscar for "Hamlet" and the phrase "Cold War" was brand new to the world of global politics.

Today, at age 78, Truesdale is chairman of the NLRB--confirmed by the unanimous vote of a Senate that barely speaks to the White House and when it does usually has little nice to say, especially when it comes to matters of labor law.

"I think I'm seen by both sides as a fair person. People see me as a centrist," said Truesdale, a onetime Republican who in 1940 went from door-to-door in his hometown of Grinnell, Iowa, warning voters that if Franklin D. Roosevelt were re-elected to a third term, it would be the last free election in America.

But Truesdale said he wept when Roosevelt died. "Somewhere I turned from a Republican to a Democrat," he said.

Except for a stint of several years at the National Academy of Sciences that ended in 1963, Truesdale has spent his entire career at the NLRB, starting as a field examiner in Buffalo. He even met his wife, Karin, at the NLRB when the two were working as field examiners in New Orleans.

The NLRB is charged with conducting secret ballot elections for union representation and weighing accusations of unlawful conduct by either labor or management in those elections. Field examiners such as Truesdale would conduct the initial NLRB investigation into charges filed with the board.

As he nears the 50-year mark at an agency that was created only 14 years before he arrived, Truesdale says he doesn't think his tenure is particularly unusual. But when you ask him how many people he knows who rose from the loading dock to the chairmanship, he concedes he doesn't know of many, if any, others.

During his time at the NLRB, Truesdale has served five different stints on the five-member board, including two different recess appointments by President Clinton before his Senate confirmation in November. He also served a full term during the Carter administration and a brief recess appointment that ended abruptly when Ronald Reagan was elected president.

And when he wasn't serving as a member of the board, Truesdale spent 20 years as executive secretary to the board, the top staff job at the agency. Truesdale retired in January 1996, at the end of a second recess appointment to the board by President Clinton. Retirement didn't last two years when the White House called again, asking him to come back for another recess appointment, this time as chairman.

With his Senate confirmation, Truesdale's term now extends to August 2003. But this time he has made it clear he has no intention of filling out his term, publicly stating he intends to retire for good following the inauguration of the next president, whoever is elected.

But he doesn't plan to sit back and do nothing until the election. Until the next president is sworn in, Truesdale said his main goal is to clear up as much of the backlog of NLRB cases as possible. So far, his record is impressive for an organization that was once called the "Rip Van Winkle of federal agencies" by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.

For the last 20 years, the backlog of cases at the NLRB has become legendary in labor relations circles, with cases often taking years to be resolved. Truesdale said that when he was first appointed chairman by Clinton in December 1998, there were still cases pending from his previous tour on the board from early 1994 to early 1996.

The backlog of cases didn't reach critical proportions until the 1980s when, at one point, nearly 1,700 cases were stacked up waiting for decisions. Since October 1998, the board has cut its backlog from 166 to 83.

The major problems began under the Reagan administration and critics of the board, particularly union leaders, blamed the problem on an anti-labor bias by the White House, charging that the backlog was a deliberate effort to aid employers since most of the complaints involved allegations of anti-union activities by employers.

But Truesdale, who lived through those days at the board, doesn't buy that. Instead, he blames the backlog on the delays in filling vacancies at the board and the high turnover among board members during that period. Thirty-one different people have served on the board since 1980. "You can't keep a continuum with that kind of turnover," he said.

When someone leaves the board, Truesdale said, it takes months for the new member to catch up on pending cases, even when the newcomers are experienced labor lawyers. "When someone leaves the board, the cases go back to square one," he said.

Truesdale is judicious when it comes to talking about the politics surrounding the appointments process during the last 20 years, a period when Republicans gained, lost and regained control of the Senate and its confirmation process and a time when the White House and Congress often were at odds on labor relations matters.

But he is quick to admit "the problem has always been at the board level."

The NLRB is unusual in that the board can only consider cases deemed to have merit by the agency's general counsel, much the way a prosecutor sets the agenda for the courts by determining who gets indicted. The vast majority of cases are settled at the field level in less than 100 days, he said.

And what does Truesdale plan to do when he finally retires from the board sometime in his 80th year? He says he might do a little arbitration work, just to keep his hand in labor relations.

Players

John C. Truesdale

Title: Chairman, National Labor Relations Board.

Age: 78.

Family: Married, four children, nine grandchildren.

Education: Bachelor's degree from Grinnell College; master's degree in industrial and labor relations, Cornell University; law degree, Georgetown University.

Hobbies: Gardening, reading, movies and his grandchildren.