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On April 20, 2011, Lafe Solomon, the acting general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), issued a complaint against Boeing, accusing the company of violating federal law. Boeing’s offense? Having had the temerity to open a new manufacturing facility in South Carolina rather than Washington state. Solomon deemed this action illegal because, in his view, it might make Boeing’s unionized workers in Washington less likely to go on strike. His proposed remedy is to force Boeing to manufacture planes in the Evergreen state — thereby scrapping production in South Carolina.
This unprecedented demand puts a relatively obscure federal agency in the position of dictating where, when, and how a private employer can produce its products. Should this complaint stand, it would set a dangerous new standard for federal control over private business operations.
The legal theory behind this case is far from sound (read more about that here), but what’s particularly interesting is the timing. After all, Boeing’s decision to open a new production line in South Carolina was made in October 2009, roughly 17 months ago. Statements by Boeing’s leadership cited in Solomon’s complaint were made around that same time. The union’s unfair labor practice charge against the company, which triggered the complaint, is more than a year old. During all that time, Boeing invested more than $1 billion in its South Carolina plant and hired 1,000 workers, who now face the prospect of the NLRB forcing the elimination of their jobs.
So why did Solomon decide to file this complaint now? One could be forgiven for thinking that politics might have entered into his calculations. It’s no secret that organized labor plays a major role in elections. At the moment, however, unions are feeling disillusioned. Priorities like Card Check have gotten short shrift, while issues unions tend to oppose, such as free trade agreements, are moving forward. There are concerns about concessions on the federal budget, and unions are upset that the administration did not intervene more forcefully in state-level fights over collective bargaining. What better way for Solomon to embrace the unions than a transparently pro-union complaint against a major employer? Better still the complaint targets non-union workers in a “red” state while favoring union workers from a “blue” state.
All of this raises concerns about the politicization of the NLRB, and some have called for the administration to pull Solomon’s nomination as general counsel. Perception aside, it looks in any event as though this nomination now faces a steep hill in the Senate and after the rejection of Craig Becker last year, the administration may wish to avoid another dust-up over NLRB nominations.
For the past year, the NLRB has faced increasing criticism that its decisions are meant to promote unionization at all costs rather than to fairly and impartially apply the law. With this latest action, the agency has demonstrated just how far off course it has strayed. If we want an economy that works, it’s time for the NLRB to be put back on track.