Republican outrage over NLRB efforts to enforce labor law against Boeing

NYHTC — July 12, 2011



In a move that has provoked the fury of America's right-wing politicians, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a complaint on April 20 against the Boeing Company for transferring aircraft assembly work out of state in retaliation against its unionized workers. That case took a step forward on June 14 as both sides appeared before a Seattle administrative law judge (ALJ) for an evidentiary hearing. The complaint alleges that by establishing a second assembly line in a new non-union South Carolina plant instead of doing the work at the existing union facility in Washington state, Boeing unlawfully retaliated against union employees who had exercised their right to strike, which is protected by law.

NLRB Acting General Counsel Lafe Solomon issued the complaint after trying, unsuccessfully, to negotiate a settlement between Boeing and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. The complaint seeks to obtain an order that would force Boeing to relocate the second assembly line back to Washington. Boeing would still retain the right to assemble additional planes in South Carolina. If no agreement can be reached between the parties in the future, the case now underway before the ALJ will continue and could eventually make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, a process which could take years.

According to an NLRB press release, its investigation "found reasonable cause to believe that Boeing had violated two sections of the National Labor Relations Act because its statements were coercive to employees and its actions were motivated by a desire to retaliate for past strikes and chill future strike activity." The NLRB's complaint cites a number of statements which illustrate Boeing's desire to retaliate, including a particularly unambiguous one made during a videotaped interview with the Seattle Times. Jim Albaugh, Boeing's executive vice president, said, "The overriding factor was not the business climate. And it was not the wages we are paying today, it was that we can't afford to have a work stoppage every three years." Also, according to the New York Times, Boeing has acknowledged that the company was indeed considering labor disruptions when it chose to establish a South Carolina facility, although it asserts that lower production costs were the main reason for the move there.

It is common for American businesses to move their operations overseas to countries governed by "business-friendly" dictatorships or reluctantly former slave states like South Carolina, to evade their union contracts and exploit cheap labor. Most companies at least claim legitimate economic reasons as pretexts for such moves. Boeing, however, openly admitted it was moving the work because its employees in Washington state had dared to go on strike on occasion in the past. It is a clear-cut violation of the National Labor Relations Act for employers to retaliate against employees for exercising their right to strike.

Perhaps the current anti-worker climate in the country emboldened Boeing executives to violate the law so blatantly. A fierce offensive has been raging in the corporate media and in many state legislatures against workers and their unions, presumably to divert public attention from the catastrophic results of right-wing economic policies.

Predictably, the NLRB's case against Boeing provoked an outcry from Republican politicians and business groups who claim that, by attempting to enforce the law, the Labor Board has clearly overstepped its bounds. A group of 19 Republican senators is vowing to block the Obama administration's nominations to the NLRB in retaliation for the Boeing complaint. Republican legislators generally regard it as their patriotic duty to prevent or obstruct the enforcement of laws protecting the rights of working people, to dismantle America's industrial power, and to eradicate the middle class.

However, Joseph Marra, a Seattle labor lawyer who represents management in cases against unions, acknowledges that there is nothing exceptional about the NLRB's complaint. "Executives from the company made statements about how they're going to transfer work because people engaged in strikes," he told the New York Times, "That's a fairly straightforward case. They [the NLRB] would bring this case whether the investment was for $200 million or $200."

The South Carolina factory opened in North Charleston on June 10, employing only non-union workers.

Greenhouse, Steven. Boeing Labor Battle is Poised to Go Before Judge. The New York Times. June 13, 2011.

Sarlin, Benjy. South Carolina Emerges As Next Labor Flashpoint In Boeing Dispute. Talking Points Memo. May 9, 2011.

Trottman, Melanie. Boeing to Fight Order to Move 787. The Wall Street Journal. April 21, 2011.

News Release: Acting General Counsel Lafe Solomon releases statement on Boeing complaint. National Labor Relations Board, Office of Public Affairs. May 9, 2011.

News Release: National Labor Relations Board issues complaint against Boeing Company for unlawfully transferring work to a non-union facility. National Labor Relations Board, Office of Public Affairs. April 20, 2011.

Gates, Dominic. Albaugh: Boeing's first preference' is to build planes in Puget Sound region. Seattle Times. March 2, 2010.

Photo courtesy of Mathieu Marquer