For NLRB lawyer Lafe Solomon, Boeing action was no laughing matter

Lafe Solomon has learned to email with a subpoena in mind.

As acting general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), Solomon came under heavy scrutiny from Republican lawmakers after he authored an April 2011 complaint against Boeing. Congressional committees and watchdog groups asked for thousands of pages of NLRB emails and internal documents on the Boeing action, many of which were written by Solomon.

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In an interview with The Hill, the NLRB’s top lawyer said the experience has taught him that humor doesn’t always translate over email.  

“I now understand why people write, ‘LOL’ or put smiley faces or frowny faces on emails,” joked Solomon, 62. “Because when looked at with just the literal writing of them, they can be misread or misinterpreted.”

One email that Solomon says was meant to be sarcastic showed up in a Freedom of Information Act response to Judicial Watch, a watchdog group. Soon after the Boeing complaint was filed, Solomon responded to a news story about the complaint that then-

NLRB Chairwoman Wilma Liebman had passed along to him.

“The article gave me a new idea. You go to geneva and I get a job with airbus. We screwed up the [U.S.] economy and now we can tackle europe,” Solomon wrote in the email. 

The release of that email led to numerous media reports, including one with the headline, “NLRB lawyer: ‘We screwed up the U.S. economy.’ ”

“That’s why I should have written LOL at the end of them,” Solomon said. 

The NLRB complaint that alleged Boeing had retaliated against union workers was dropped late last year after the aerospace giant reached a settlement with the International Association of Machinists — a solution Solomon said he wanted all along.

“I always believed that the best thing was for the parties to reach a settlement,” Solomon said. 

Solomon said he tried for months to negotiate a settlement and also asked the parties to give oral arguments to him before he filed the complaint.

“I knew the case had national significance. I was never in doubt of that,” Solomon said. “I wanted to make sure that we really understood each party’s position and all the evidence that each of them were relying on.”

That complaint centered on Boeing starting a new production line for its 787 Dreamliner jet in South Carolina, a right-to-work state. Before starting the line, Boeing executives expressed worries about work stoppages at their unionized facilities in the state of Washington. The complaint alleged that opening the non-union facility in South Carolina was retaliation against the union workers.

Despite what Solomon characterized as a cautious approach to the complaint, 2011 became a tumultuous year for him and his agency.

Legislation has been passed to curb the NLRB’s power, its nominations — including Solomon’s — have been blocked in the Senate, and there have been 14 official document requests from Congress since last year, according to an NLRB spokeswoman. The agency has reviewed roughly 100,000 pages of documents for a congressional subpoena on the Boeing complaint, turning over 10,000 pages so far.

Solomon believes he is the first NLRB general counsel since 1940 to be subpoenaed by Congress. 

“It’s their right to investigate. Would I wish that they would stop? Yes. But we will continue to cooperate and we’re doing a rolling production. If they ever tell us they have had enough, we will stop.”

The crossfire over the NLRB has often hit Solomon directly.

In a December 2011 letter, 11 Republican senators asked President Obama to withdraw Solomon’s nomination because of his “recent actions and continued threats” and “intimidation and inappropriate interference.”  

Further, in a series of phone calls days before the Boeing action was taken, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told Solomon that he would go “full guns a-blazing” against the labor board if the complaint were filed, according to Solomon’s notes.

Solomon took a phone call from Graham while he was with his wife and daughter on vacation in New York City.

“I’m sitting on the floor in the stairwell of the Museum of Modern Art when I talk to him,” Solomon said. “We hadn’t even gotten that far into the museum. I never did see a piece of artwork at the Museum of Modern Art.”

Asked why he took notes on the phone calls, Solomon said he could count on one hand the number of senators he has talked to since becoming acting general counsel.

“I felt it was unusual. I’ll say that,” Solomon said.

Marshall Babson, a former Democratic NLRB board member, said Solomon is “a highly competent, highly effective, highly intelligent labor lawyer.”

“During my time at the NLRB, he was among the very best,” said Babson, now a partner at Seyfarth Shaw. “He’s a person of great character. He is someone who’s absolutely committed to doing what he thinks is right. He’s not interested in doing what’s expedient or popular. He has the courage to do what he believes the law requires.”

  Solomon, a Helena, Ark., native, didn’t have any experience with labor law before coming to the NLRB. After graduating in 1970 from Brown University with an economics degree, he wanted to go to Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer, but the agency wanted to station him in Central America.

“I didn’t know Spanish, so I had no idea why they were doing this, so I had a fight with them,” Solomon said.

Solomon volunteered on an Indian reservation in North Dakota instead. While applying for the Peace Corps, he took the civil service exam, which led to a job offer from the NLRB to be a field examiner in Seattle.

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“I accepted the job because I had never been west of the Rockies. I had no idea what the NLRB did, and the rest is history. They handed me the layman’s guide to the National Labor Relations Act on my first day of the job,” Solomon said.

That led to a law degree from Tulane University and a position at the NLRB’s Office of Appeals in Washington, where he met his wife. Solomon has been with the labor board for close to 40 years.

“I didn’t like not trying the case that I investigated,” Solomon said. “I never had exposure to labor law, so it was on-the-job training. I loved it. I loved the mission of the agency. I loved the work.”

Solomon will defend the labor board in court this year against lawsuits challenging its proposals to speed up union elections and have employers post notices detailing workers’ rights. 

“We are trying our best to enforce the National Labor Relations Act. Some parts of the National Labor Relations Act, our attackers just don’t agree with, but it is the law of the land and it’s our job to enforce it as written,” Solomon said. “If it’s changed, we’ll change.”