Working In These Times
Boeing Flies Over Workers’ Rights—With Support From GOP
A new bill aims to significantly curb the authority of the National Labor Relations Board
The GOP—which traditionally pretends to be the party of law and order—not surprisingly makes a big exception when the accused lawbreaker is a major corporation and the alleged crime is a violation of workers’ rights.
And in the case of Boeing, they’re pulling out all the stops. The aerospace giant (and beneficiary of America’s distinctively militarized industrial policy) openly threatened its unionized workers in Seattle that it would move production elsewhere if they exercised their right to strike. Then the company built a new plant in South Carolina that makes one of the Washington state factory's major products.
On Monday, presidential candidate Mitt Romney joined other primary contenders in making the Boeing case a central campaign whipping boy. He told South Carolina audiences that Obama-appointed “labor stooges” at the National Labor Relations Board had taken a radical step by simply deciding to investigate the case and to bring a complaint before a judge in the usual labor law tribunal.
Already Republicans have called Congressional hearings, threatened to report the NLRB general counsel to the Bar Association, demanded that confidential internal NLRB documents be released in the middle of the judicial hearings and threatened to make the NLRB ineffective by cutting its funding or refusing to seat enough board members to reach enforceable decisions, as Mike Elk has reported for Working In These Times.
On Thursday this week, House Republicans plan to bring to a vote a bill that would prevent the NLRB from ever again taking the action it did at Boeing.
The bill denies the Board the power to enforce unfair labor complaints against a company that moves work to a contractor or to another facility in a new location, whether it’s China or South Carolina.
But the implications go far beyond this dispute.
“This is sweeping legislation that would gut the National Labor Relations Act and result in serious, dangerous changes to jobs and workers’ rights across the country,” AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka says. “This bill takes away the NLRB’s ability to protect workers when companies illegally take away or transfer work.” Companies could relocate rather than deal with health and safety complaints or charges of gender or racial bias. They could foil workers’ right to organize by shipping jobs overseas or anywhere else, and they could violate with impunity their obligation to bargain with unionized workers over plant closings.
Such actions are now clearly illegal and subject to NLRB sanctions, and the NLRB has imposed sanctions—such as returning work from Mexico after a company fled the country to avoid unionization, according to a letter drafted by University of Texas law professor Julius Getman and signed by more than 247 labor law experts. The action of the Board's counsel is “standard,” as has been affirmed in Federal Courts of Appeal, not a radical new departure, Getman writes. (Companies do close or move facilities to thwart workers’ rights anyway because most don’t make public threats, as Boeing did, and the law permits relocation for virtually any reason except interfering with workers’ rights.)
The proposed legislation “would go well beyond overruling the Acting General Counsel’s actions in the Boeing case,” Getman’s letter says. “If enacted, it will give tacit permission to employers to punish any segment of their workforce that chooses to unionize or to exercise the right to strike by eliminating their jobs … If the bill passes, the Board will have no effective response to basic unfair labor practices.”
The NLRB—almost as much as the Environmental Protection Agency—has been the target of Tea Party-style rhetoric embraced by virtually all Republicans about “job-killing” government activities. But after eight years of slow but steady erosion of workers' rights under the Bush Board, corporations and the political right see the Obama appointees as “radical” for doing such things as proposing rules to expedite elections, clarifying standards or requiring that employers post notices in the workplace of the right to form a union (just as employers must with all other labor laws).
In some instances, the NLRB has simply reversed marked departures from precedent and law by the Bush Board. For example, the Obama Board restored the long-standing practice of prohibiting challenges to voluntary recognition of a union by an employer for one year, in order to give a chance to the new collective bargaining relationship, which the law emphatically encourages. The Bush Board had ruled that a group of workers could call for a representation election within the first 45 days after an employer voluntarily recognizes a union.
“The Board is not radical by any stretch,” argues AFL-CIO General Counsel Lynn Rhinehart. “The reality behind the attack on it is there is a political agenda of people who want to intimidate the Board.” And destroy the limited rights American workers still have on the job.