Echoing the allegations of several right-wing pundits, Republican Senator from Kentucky Rand Paul asked (quite seriously): "Mr. President, do you have an enemies list? ... Are we on your enemies list?”
The facts of the case that provoked Paul's outburst are straightforward. Last month, the NLRB issued a complaint – the first step in a complex process that could last years and go as far as the Supreme Court – against Boeing for expanding production of its 787 Dreamliner at a non-union plant in right-to-work South Carolina rather than at a union plant in Washington state.
Boeing executives explained that they did not want to run the risk of another strike at its unionized Everett, Washington plant. But even in this era of open attacks on labor rights, retaliation against protected activity – in this case the right to strike – is illegal.
This simple action has ignited a firestorm of self-righteous indignation among GOP leaders. Republican Governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, believes this amounts to “government-dictated economic larceny” carried out by federal bureaucrats who are “little more than union puppets.”
Not to be outdone, one of South Carolina’s Republican Senators called the board’s action “thuggery at its worst,” while Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell attacked this "Chicago-style thuggish administration.”
U.S. representative Tim Scott of South Carolina believes that the NLRB complaint “represents an unprecedented attack on our free enterprise system," and former speaker and candidate for the GOP nomination for president Newt Gingrich attacked the board as "unelected, unconfirmed bureaucrats running wild."
None of this is true, of course – not even close, in fact. But truth has little role to play in the right wing’s ongoing attacks on labor protections.
This story is not about Boeing, South Carolina or even right-to-work states more generally. The legal issues would be exactly the same had Boeing relocated to another non-right-to-work state such as California. It’s not even really about the NLRB, though that is certainly the focus of conservative rage. Rather, it is about the right wing’s efforts to intimidate an independent federal agency and force the Obama Administration to abandon even the most basic of efforts to protect workplace rights.
What is most striking here is that it is increasingly difficult to separate the extreme rhetoric of the leadership of the Republican Party from the extreme rhetoric of self-publishing wingnuts on the web.
Let’s consider that word “thug,” which pops up again and again when conservative politicians and pundits have attacked the NLRB. I know several current and former NLRB members, and “thuggish” is the last word I would use to describe them – mild-mannered and intellectual perhaps, maybe slightly bland, definitely guarded in a way that only lawyers can be. But thug – where does that word come from, even in the wildest of right-wing imaginations?
There is nothing thuggish about the board and nothing radical about the decision to issue a complaint against Boeing. Indeed, given the public statements of Boeing officials concerning their desire to avoid strikes, it would have been surprising if the NLRB had not issued a complaint. But that kind of prosaic reality has no place in the current, hyperbolic rhetoric on labor regulation.
When it comes to labor issues, Republicans’ strategy is to throw out the most outlandish accusations imaginable and see what sticks. In the fight against unions, the line between the rhetoric of right-wing crazies on the blogosphere and that of the right wing in Congress and the statehouses has become blurred like never before.
What the hysteria surrounding the Boeing case really illustrates is Republicans’ incredulity that an “obscure regulatory agency” would dare enforce the law against an “iconic American company” – that, even if its actions are illegal, Boeing might not be permitted to do what is best for Boeing. Today, few would argue that what is good for General Motors is good for America – which the CEO of GM never actually said – yet Republicans seem to believe to that what is good for Boeing is good for America. And, more troubling, what is bad for unions is very good for America.
John Logan is a professor and director of Labor and Employment Studies at San Francisco State University.