"I saw workers who had been followed into the bathroom while they were at work so that their supervisors could hear who they talked to and what they talked about," she said.

Schiffer grew up in a family of dairy farmers in Michigan, studied at Michigan State University and the University of Michigan Law School and began her career in the Detroit office of the National Labor Relations Board.

She later worked for a private law firm in Detroit that represented labor unions and workers, became a staff attorney for the United Auto Workers, and came to Washington in 2000 to join the office of the general counsel of the AFL-CIO.

She was accompanied at the hearing by her husband of 32 years next month, Goldwin Smith.

Schiffer said a fully confirmed board would include members with a "variety of backgrounds" — meaning both Democrats and Republicans — and reiterated that she wanted it to be viewed as a "fair and honest broker."

Sen. Orrin Hatch said he's heard such pledges before.

"In recent years, we've had former union lawyers nominated for the board who came before this committee and promised that they'd be objective," the Utah Republican said. "Needless to say, I don't think those promises that were made here were kept."

Sen. Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, noted that the Senate has confirmed nominees to the board who have represented management.

Harkin said Schiffer and Hirozawa "deserve to be confirmed with strong bipartisan support."

"I hope that this agreement brings a new beginning for the board, so that we can ratchet down the political rhetoric that seems to surround this agency, and instead let the dedicated public servants who work there do their jobs," the Iowa Democrat said. "It's time to put the board back in business."