The Conservative War on Workers’ Rights

The Latest Chapter Features Misinformation About Boeing and Its Unions

David Madland details the facts in the National Labor Relations Board’s complaint against the aircraft manufacturer to set the record straight.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) criticized the National Labor Relations Board for their complaint against The Boeing Company, saying the NLRB was “acting like thugs that you might see in a third world country.” (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) criticized the National Labor Relations Board for their complaint against The Boeing Company, saying the NLRB was “acting like thugs that you might see in a third world country.” (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

Right-wing politicians and pundits are in an uproar over the National Labor Relations Board’s April 20 complaint alleging that aircraft manufacturer The Boeing Company broke the law by punishing unionized workers who had exercised their legally protected right to strike. While the case is still in the early stages—the NLRB hasn’t even held a hearing on the complaint, let alone reached a decision on its merit—what is clear at this point is that conservatives’ efforts to pressure the NLRB to drop the investigation is a continuation of their aggressive war against workers and their rights to join unions and collectively bargain.

Based on the facts currently available about Boeing’s decision to move an airline production line from a union facility in the state of Washington to a brand new, nonunion facility in South Carolina, the NLRB has justification for filing a complaint. A senior Boeing official told The Seattle Times in a videotaped interview:

The overriding factor [in moving to South Carolina] was not the business climate. And it was not the wages we’re paying today. It was that we cannot afford to have a work stoppage, you know, every three years.

The National Labor Relations Act prohibits retaliation against strikes.

The NLRB’s hearing on the Boeing complaint is scheduled for June 14, and the hearing and future proceedings will bring to light whether Boeing’s actions were legal. The law protects Boeing’s rights to make business decisions, and certainly they have some business reasons for moving the production line to South Carolina (such as the $900 billion in subsidies from the state), but it also clearly protects workers from retaliation for striking.

The facts currently available in the Boeing case point to the need to at least hold a hearing. As Lafe Solomon, the NLRB’s general counsel who has served the board for 29 years, working with both parties, wrote in a press statement:

There is nothing remarkable or unprecedented about the complaint issued against The Boeing Company on April 20. The complaint involves matters of fact and law that are not unique to this case, and it was issued only after a thorough investigation in the field, a further careful review by our attorneys in Washington, and an invitation by me to the parties to present their case and discuss the possibility of a settlement.

Other, more distant parties make similar arguments. The Washington Post’s business columnist Steven Pearlstein argues that “given the public statements of Boeing officials, there is nothing radical about the NLRB’s decision to hold a hearing based on the complaint filed by the International Association of Machinists.” Similarly, Joe Marra, a former NLRB lawyer who now represents employers with the law firm Davis Grimm Payne & Marra, told The Seattle Times that he doesn’t find the NLRB complaint surprising. “If my sympathies are anywhere, they are with management,” said Marra. “But I am also a realist. If I’m their labor lawyer, I’m cringing when they are saying that.”

Moreover, the remedy being proposed by the NLRB’s general counsel would allow Boeing to operate the South Carolina plant, contrary to the claims of many conservatives (and sloppy reporters who allow such claims to go unchecked).

The remedy sought by the NLRB’s general counsel merely requires Boeing to maintain a second line at the unionized Washington facility. As the NLRB complaint explains, the “General Counsel does not seek to prohibit Respondent [Boeing] from making non-discriminatory decision with respect to where work will be performed, including non-discriminatory decisions with respect to work at its North Charleston, South Carolina, facility.”

Finally, the general counsel would have filed the complaint if Boeing had transferred the work to a nonunion facility in any state, regardless of whether it was a right-to-work state where unions are especially weak.

The facts of the case are, of course, important. But what should not be obscured in the discussion of this case is that the right’s ranting is part of a long-running, highly orchestrated right-wing campaign against workers and their unions that has now reached a fevered pitch.

As my colleague Pat Garofalo highlights, several Republican senators spoke on the floor against the NLRB’s action, with Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) deriding the NLRB for “acting like thugs that you might see in a third world country.” Nineteen Senate Republicans sent a letter to President Obama on May 5 stating that they will vote against confirming the NLRB’s acting general counsel, as well as Craig Becker, a recess-appointed board member, writing, “we will vigorously oppose both nominations, vote against cloture and use all procedural tools available to defeat their confirmation in the Senate.”

Gov. Nikki Haley (R-SC), who has publicly stated that as governor she is “going to fight the unions,” has indicated that the right view on this issue is key to winning her endorsement in the Republican presidential primary. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) claims the move is motivated by an “enemies list” maintained by President Obama. And 34 Republican senators introduced a bill to prevent the NLRB from taking action against Boeing.

This is not, of course, the conservative movement’s first attempt to prevent the Obama administration from trying to protect workers’ basic rights to join a union and collectively bargain. In this year alone, conservatives have taken a number of aggressive antiunion actions. One hundred and seventy-six House Republicans (75 percent of the caucus) voted to eliminate all funding for the NLRB, which would have prevented the enforcement of labor law for a year. The measure failed to pass the House, but H.R. 1, the continuing resolution passed by the House, included a $50 million reduction in the National Labor Relations Board’s budget, which if it had also passed the Senate would have forced NLRB staff members to be furloughed for 55 days, causing a backlog of cases to pile up.

Many congressional Republicans have also been trying to prevent union elections from being decided by a majority vote. Last year, the National Mediation Board did away with an absurd rule that, for union elections under the Railway Labor Act, counted workers who didn’t vote as having voted against unionization. House Republican leaders are now using legislation that reauthorizes the Federal Aviation Administration to try and reverse the board’s ruling, once again counting absent workers as votes against the union. Senate Republican leaders, during the debate over the Senate’s version of the FAA bill, attempted to attach an amendment that would have blocked workers at the Transportation Security Administration from unionizing.

And conservative members of Congress are apoplectic about the NLRB’s decision this week to sue the states of Arizona and South Dakota seeking to invalidate those states’ constitutional amendments that prohibit private-sector employees from choosing to unionize through a procedure known as card check. The lawsuit is unsurprising and it continues a long precedent of striking down state laws preempted by the National Labor Relations Act, which these same conservatives support when it is used to strike down laws increasing workers’ union rights.

All of this is in addition to the much-higher-profile fights by conservative governors, among them Govs. Scott Walker (WI), John Kasich (OH), and Terry Branstad (IA), who are trying to legislatively bust unions by removing the right of public-sector workers to collectively bargain.

No matter the outcome of the NLRB hearing, prepare to hear lots more complaining from the right about the Boeing case, as it could potentially drag on for years. An NLRB judge’s decision can be appealed to the full board, and the board’s decision can be further appealed to a federal court and then to the U.S. Supreme Court. But when you hear conservatives gripe, you should remember two things.

First, the law protects workers’ right to strike and prevents union-avoidance strategies that may benefit one company, such as Boeing, but would be economically harmful if widely adopted. Conservative claims of union favoritism are merely efforts to discredit a reasonable investigation of potential violations of the law.

And second, and most importantly, these complaints against the NLRB’s investigation of Boeing are part of the conservative movement’s campaign to weaken workers’ rights. Sadly, conservatives have shown they want to eliminate laws protecting workers’ rights to join a union and collectively bargain, and when they can’t get rid of the law, they seek to prevent its enforcement.

David Madland is Director of the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

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David Madland

Senior Fellow; Senior Adviser, American Worker Project