Lafe Soloman, general counsel for the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) filed a complaint against Boeing last week (April 22, 2011), seeking to force Boeing to move the 787 Dreamliner passenger plane production from a non-union plant in South Carolina to a unionized assembly line in Washington State. Mr. Soloman is a career civil servant who has been with the Board for 39 years and was nominated by President Obama to become permanent general counsel in January 2011 (his senate confirmation has not been affirmed). In his opinion, this case was straightforward – Boeing had retaliated against workers for exercising their federally protected right to strike. “They [Boeing management] had a consistent message that they were doing this to punish their employees for having struck and having the power to strike in the future,” Mr. Soloman said. “I can’t not issue a complaint in the face of such evidence.”
Mr. Soloman proposed that Boeing move its work back to the unionized Puget Sound facilities. Many business leaders have denounced such a remedy as extreme, as Boeing has already spent $2 billion in investments and hired 1000 non-union workers in South Carolina.
Outraged, the National Association of Manufacturers warned that if the agency won this case, “no company will be safe from the NLRB stepping in to second guess its business decisions on where to expand.” According to Peter Shaumber, a NLRB member who stepped down from the Board in August 2010, “the current majority views its role as promoting unionization in the private sector.”
The Board’s decision has been met with mixed reviews. Lynn Reinhardt, general counsel for the AFL-CIO, applauds many of the Board’s recent moves and wishes they would do far more. “A lot of what they’ve [the NLRB] done is pretty routine,” she said. “I think the allegations of activism are pretty overblown.” Boeing, however, has called the case “legally frivolous,” and “a radical departure from both NLRB and Supreme Court precedent.” The most strident criticism came from Senator Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican complaining that the decision is “nothing more than a political favor for the unions who are supporting President Obama’s re-election campaign.”
Even if the complaint is successful, it is difficult to follow how forcing Boeing’s hand would benefit the Puget Sound region in the long run. Employers may shun the State in fear of opening plants in other “right to work” states, which could then subject them to NLRB action. If the NLRB prevails, this case will draw some clear lines on what businesses can and cannot do to avoid dealing with unions.
Read the full NY Times article on this case here.