Boeing settlement showcases the value of collective bargaining

Despite extensive political interference, the Machinist union and the Boeing company have just concluded the negotiation of a comprehensive collective bargaining agreement. The four-year contract is an impressive example of how collective bargaining works: It assures thousands of Boeing workers decent wages and job security for the duration of the contract. Meanwhile, Boeing is assured it can continue to rely on the skilled and dependable workforce that has made it one of the most successful companies in the world.
 
The negotiations also resolved a much publicized and widely distorted unfair labor practice case pending before the NLRB. The NLRB complaint arose out of a charge filed by Boeing workers who were concerned about Boeing officials publicly stating the company would move work to South Carolina in retaliation for past strikes. After an investigation, the NLRB’s general counsel found there was sufficient evidence to issue an unfair labor practice complaint against Boeing.
 

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Even before the complaint was issued, a United States Senator threatened the NLRB’s General Counsel with swift retribution if he didn’t drop the case. The General Counsel, who takes an oath to enforce the law, felt he could not ignore the evidence and bravely proceeded to issue the complaint. The Senator joined with right wing political allies, ideologues, and pundits and made good on the threat by launching an intense and relentless attack on the NLRB and its General Counsel.
 
The attackers invented a narrative that the NLRB complaint was an effort to prevent job creation in “non union” states, that it was a political payback, that it typified the Obama administration’s “job killing” regulatory overreach. The NLRB’s General Counsel was vilified, Congressional hearings were held to bash the agency, and Congress made unprecedented demands for privileged investigatory files relating to the case and demanded the agency turn over case files going back as many as ten years. It was an attack that not only distorted and misrepresented the NLRB case, but overlooked its relevance to the negotiations between Boeing and its union.
 
Boeing and the Machinist union deserve credit for refusing to get side tracked by the attack on the NLRB. Despite the political firestorm, they remained focused on the economic and workplace issues that mattered. Both sides undoubtedly understood the NLRB case and the issues it raised would be best addressed through the collective bargaining process.
 
It was not at all surprising that the charges underlying the NLRB complaint were resolved as part of the collective bargaining negotiations. This is how collective bargaining works. One side or the other in a collective bargaining negotiation often files charges with the NLRB claiming a rule violation. The NLRB serves as the referee in the collective bargaining process and is frequently asked to enforce the rules as bargaining proceeds. As happened in the Boeing negotiations, the most common outcome of a complaint issued by the General Counsel is a settlement. In fact, more than 90 percent of complaints issued by the General Counsel of the NLRB are settled.
 
What was extraordinary about the Boeing case was the interference by politicians. Rather than respect the enforcement of a law that underlies collective bargaining there was an assault on the enforcement agency — the referee — by lawmakers determined to score political points. We will never know for certain how dangerously close that interference came to derailing an important collective bargaining achievement.
 
Despite the unprecedented assault, collective bargaining prevailed. Boeing and its unionized workers are the victors—along with the dedicated civil servants at the NLRB who did their job to enforce the law, notwithstanding the blistering political attacks on the agency. Boeing and the union deserve credit for their commitment to the bargaining process despite the political distractions. They have demonstrated for all what collective bargaining can achieve. One can hope that those intent on derailing the process take note.


Feinstein is a former NLRB General Counsel, and has been a consultant to unions and other organizations. He is also a Senior Fellow at the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy, Executive Programs department.