By Richard S. Davis
Briefly, the complaint filed by the NLRB’s acting general counsel says Boeing engaged in unfair labor practices as it considered its expansion plans. So, 17 months after the company announced its decision and subsequently invested billions of dollars, hiring more than 1,000 workers in North Charleston, S.C., the complaint would have the company move the work to Washington. The breathtaking audacity is beyond caricature.
In a more sane world, business leaders could briefly mock the bureaucrats’ outrageous overreach and move on to productive work, like creating jobs, building planes, and expanding economic opportunity.
Instead, the NLRB complaint casts a shadow over a sputtering recovery stretching from Everett to North Charleston. Read narrowly as a beef between the union and the company, the complaint is significant in its own right. But that’s too limited a view. What’s at stake here is the fundamental right of any employer to act in the best interests of its customers, shareholders and, yes, its employees by expanding to where the best business conditions prevail.
The recent action raises significant legal, political and economic considerations.
The complaint says Boeing retaliated against the union for past and potential strike activity, made coercive statements and threatened to remove work from the region. The NLRB’s charges are factually inaccurate, unprecedented and contrary to precedent. To support the retaliation claim, the NLRB must demonstrate that the company acted with anti-union animus and harmed Washington machinists.
No jobs have been lost here as a result of Boeing’s expansion. The South Carolina facility is no “runaway shop.” Management did not furtively load machinery on trucks, padlock gates, and tack layoff notices to the bulletin board. It’s new work in a new location. Moreover, since the decision to open the North Charleston line was made in October 2009, Boeing has added 2,000 machinist jobs in Washington.
Under no obligation to discuss the location of the second line with the union, Boeing chose to do so. Only after talks failed did it place the new line in South Carolina.
Clearly, the company considered production stability. The law permits employers to take into account the economic consequences of strikes. Having experienced five strikes in Washington since 1975, Boeing knows how they disrupt production and delivery schedules and hurt the company’s reputation with customers. Attempting to solve the problem through negotiations, Boeing displayed no anti-union hostility.
The Boeing complaint is not the only time the NLRB has put its thumb on the union side of the scale. Private sector unions think they can stem their decline by replacing secret ballot elections with “card check.” Compelling employers to recognize a union if a majority of workers sign cards is an option under federal law. Labor wants to make it mandatory. Others don’t. The NLRB intends to sue Arizona and South Dakota over voter-approved constitutional amendments requiring secret ballots. Although similar amendments passed in two other states, the NLRB says it doesn’t have the resources to handle four lawsuits at once. Seriously.
Recognizing the broader consequences of the Boeing complaint, nine state attorneys general, including South Carolina’s, wrote NLRB’s acting general counsel, “Your action seriously undermines our citizens’ right to work as well as their ability to compete globally … We thus call upon you to cease this attack on our right to work, our states’ economies, and our jobs.”
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley calls the complaint “a direct assault on the 22 right-to-work states across America.”
Heavily unionized states like Washington are also at risk. A Detroit News editorial asks: “What new firm would invest in Michigan knowing that its union could then block its expansion to a less unionized state…?”
The complaint won’t stop Boeing, which will begin assembly in South Carolina this summer. Ultimately, the company will prevail. Yet, the confrontation itself is a costly distraction sending a chilling message. The best course would be for the NLRB to do as the attorneys general suggest: Drop the complaint now, before more damage is done.
Richard S. Davis, president of the Washington Research Council, writes on public policy, economics and politics. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.