Two main developments have thrust the NLRB unwillingly into the limelight.
First, on April 20th, AGC Lafe Solomon issued a complaint against Boeing for illegally transferring work from Washington State to South Carolina in retaliation for Puget Sound workers exercising their right to strike. In response to these efforts to enforce the law, leading Republicans have attacked NLRB members as “thugs” who are intimidating Boeing and endangering the country’s system of free enterprise.
Second, on June 21st, the NLRB proposed a new rule to eliminate the worst cases of delay in union certification elections. As a result of these efforts to modernize antiquated administrative practices, Republicans have accused the NLRB of attempting to silence employers and impose unions on reluctant employees. Extreme rhetoric on labor issues is now the norm among GOP circles, but board members must be thinking that they did not sign up for this shabby treatment.
The GOP move against the NLRB did not begin with the Boeing complaint. Immediately after taking control of the House of Representatives in January, Republicans held hearings on the board’s “activist approach,” interrogated NLRB chair Wilma Liebman and AGC Lafe Solomon about budget and enforcement matters, and attempted to defund it. But these earlier efforts failed to provide Republicans the wedge issue with which to launch an all-out assault.
While Solomon had little choice but to act on Boeing – he had tried unsuccessfully for almost a year to get the company to settle – the complaint provided red meat for Republicans. Since then they have demanded internal documents from the NLRB, threatened to subpoena Solomon if he refused to attend a South Carolina hearing on Boeing, then accused him of “prosecutorial misconduct” when he did, and threatened to defund the board in retaliation for issuing the complaint. With South Carolina holding the all-important first-in-the-South primary, GOP candidates for President – most recently Michelle Bachmann -- are falling over themselves to denounce the labor board.
Last week President Obama weighed in on the Boeing dispute for the first time. The over-the-top rhetoric and outlandish accusations surrounding the complaint have put the President in an awkward position. Republicans have repeatedly tried to use the dispute to attack the Administration’s “job killing” regulatory agenda. While avoiding interference with a complaint issued by the independent board, which has had no contact with him on Boeing or the election proposal, Obama must defend the rule of law – powerful corporations cannot be allowed to violate labor law with impunity -- and stand up against the effort to intimidate the NLRB.
Obama stressed that private corporations have every right to transfer work for business reasons -- which the NLRB complaint against Boeing explicitly acknowledges – but also stated that in an era of global competition, America “can’t afford to have labor and management fighting all the time.”
Thus, the legal process must be allowed to run its course without political interference, but a far preferable outcome would be for the parties to come up with a common sense solution without first going through years of litigation.
But common sense has played no part in the GOP attack on the board. That is the product of pure ideology. If Republicans get their way, this will be a long, hot summer for the NLRB. Their appetite for pointless congressional hearings – yet another one is planned for Thursday – and political posturing on the board appears virtually unlimited. So much for Republicans’ commitment to voters to keep an unwavering focus on job creation. Time will tell if this strategy of attacking the NLRB to undermine workplace rights and tarnish the Obama Administration by proxy proves successful. Whatever the outcome, NLRB members must be looking forward to the end of their moment in the limelight.
John Logan is Professor and Director of Labor and Employment Studies at San Francisco State University.