Senator threatened labor board before Boeing complaint

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) called the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and threatened to go after the agency “full guns a-blazing” if they filed a complaint against Boeing, according to documents obtained by The Hill. 

Days before the NLRB issued the April 20 complaint against Boeing for allegedly retaliating against union workers, there were at least two phone calls between Graham and Lafe Solomon, the NLRB’s acting general counsel, during which the senator tried to talk the agency out of filing the complaint. 

“He said that if a complaint was filed, it will be ‘nasty,’ ‘very, very nasty,’ ” Solomon wrote in notes describing a phone call with Graham on April 11. “He said that if complaint issued, he was going ‘full guns a-blazing.’ ”

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In that phone call, according to Solomon’s notes, Graham said he had talked to Boeing and agreed with its position. 

“He said that this was a case of how not to grow the economy. He said that we had to do what we had to do, and he had to do what he had to do. It was up to us,” Solomon said Graham told him. 

When contacted by The Hill, Graham confirmed that the conversations with Solomon took place and said he was trying to protect jobs in his home state.

“In saying that I would be ‘going guns a-blazing,’ I meant that I would vigorously criticize the NLRB and actively work to protect the economic interests of South Carolina,” Graham said in a statement. “Those statements were made to convey to Mr. Solomon the political uproar that would occur both in South Carolina and nationally if the complaint was filed.”

The NLRB complaint centers on Boeing’s new production line for the 787 Dreamliner jet in South Carolina, a right-to-work state. The company launched that line after Boeing executives expressed concerns about work stoppages at their unionized facilities in the state of Washington.

The NLRB complaint alleges that Boeing started the new production line in South Carolina instead of Washington to retaliate against union workers. 

Boeing denies that charge, and notes its investment of $1 billion in the South Carolina facility.

The complaint against Boeing has created a firestorm on Capitol Hill. Republican lawmakers, including Graham, have threatened the agency’s funding, promised to block nominations and subpoenaed NLRB documents. Earlier this year, in response to the Boeing complaint, the House passed legislation that would prevent the NLRB from ordering a company to relocate its employment.  

The April 11 conversation between Graham and Solomon followed an earlier phone call on April 8, when the senator called Solomon on his cellphone while the attorney was at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. 

“He told me that the ‘retaliatory charge’ of the Machinists against Boeing would have huge economic and political consequences. He said that the charge would scare Boeing’s customers and could affect orders. He said that the political fallout would be huge and that he was more reasonable than his Senate counterpart (Sen. DeMint),” Solomon wrote in his notes.

Solomon said he told the senator that he wanted to work out a settlement between the union and Boeing. But the NLRB lawyer said he had been unable to have the two parties talk to each other, though the case had “every potential” to be settled.

“He said that he was pessimistic that the Machinists and Boeing could work things out, but that he never thought it was a bad idea to talk. I thanked him for being willing to help,” Solomon wrote in his notes. 

In his statement to The Hill, Graham said he worked to find a settlement between Boeing and the union workers after talking with Solomon.

“Mr. Solomon replied that mediation between Boeing and the [International Association of Machinists (IAM)] may provide an alternative avenue for resolving the issue. He asked if I would talk with Boeing representatives to gauge their interest in mediation. I said I would,” Graham said in his statement. “I underscored the economic damage that the complaint would cause South Carolina and informed Mr. Solomon of the increasing tensions surrounding the case. … I told him that he had to do what he had to do in bringing the complaint, and I had to do what I had to do in criticizing the action.”

The Machinists noted Graham’s phone calls to Solomon in an ethics complaint filed in May with the Senate Ethics Committee. IAM, which filed the original complaint against Boeing for starting the production line in South Carolina, alleged that the GOP senator was interfering with a law enforcement action.

Graham has said the ethics complaint was “an effort to intimidate” him and called it “ridiculous, just like their complaint against Boeing.”

Former NLRB officials contacted by The Hill had different views about whether Graham’s calls to Solomon were out of bounds.

John Irving, a former NLRB general counsel who was appointed by former President Ford, said he sometimes heard from lawmakers before he filed a complaint at the agency. 

“There's no impropriety communicating with the general counsel about a charge pending before the general counsel,” said Irving, who is now of counsel at Kirkland & Ellis. “To try to get them to decide one way or the other by expressing a personal view about what the general counsel ought to do is okay. At that point, the general counsel is an investigator, not a judge.”

Others said Graham’s calls were unusual.

“We got lots of threats and statements of hostility after cases materialized,” said Bill Gould, who served as chairman of the labor board during the Clinton administration. “I certainly didn't get any calls like that.” 

Gould, now a Stanford University law school professor, compared Graham’s calls to “picking up the phone and calling the prosecutor” to sway a case in a certain direction.

The Hill obtained Solomon’s notes after filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for all documents responsive to a FOIA request from Judicial Watch, a watchdog group. That group asked for NLRB documents relating to the Boeing complaint.

In the documents, Solomon also described a phone call on March 18 with Mike Luttig, Boeing’s general counsel. 

“He told me that he was ‘miffed’ that although he had done what I asked [redacted] I was still considering issuing complaint,” Solomon wrote in his notes.

Luttig told Solomon that Boeing would lobby against the labor board on Capitol Hill to stop NLRB from pursuing the complaint. 

“He told me that rather than accept that offer, he thought that he would go to the Hill to prevent me from litigating the case. I told him that he would have to get such a rider through the Senate,” Solomon wrote in his notes.

The labor board lawyer countered that he felt he could win the case in court but that he was still open to working out a settlement.

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“I said that I had the CEO on tape saying that the move to SC was not because of economics but because the Machinists strike. I said I had a triable case and that I would do whatever I thought was right under the NLRA. But I reiterated that I thought the parties should meet and try to reach a settlement,” Solomon wrote in his notes. 

Sean McCormack, a Boeing spokesman, said that the company’s attorneys told Solomon that the complaint had no legal foundation, would hurt their business and have huge implications for U.S. job creation. In addition, Boeing “would be obliged to bring the matter to the attention of congressional and other interested stakeholders if the acting general counsel were to proceed.” 

“These discussions were candid and professional. Neither side issued any threats, but both sides made clear they would defend their position should the complaint move forward,” McCormack said.