With suit against Boeing, labor board a top GOP target

Move over, EPA and OSHA: The National Labor Relations Board has become the popular executive-branch target for Republicans.

Since its April 20 complaint against Boeing for allegedly retaliating against union workers, the NLRB has faced a daily barrage of GOP and business criticism for meddling in a company’s decision on where to locate its operations.

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The labor board has seen its funding threatened and been blanketed with requests for more information from lawmakers. One Republican senator even implied that the agency is carrying out orders to punish a White House “enemies list.”

Since the House switched to GOP control, Republicans have repeatedly challenged new regulations coming from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and other federal agencies. 

But for Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the labor board’s complaint is “unprecedented” and his “No. 1 issue to resolve.”

“These are regulatory decisions that affect specific businesses. This complaint affects the fundamentals of how you make a business decision,” Graham told The Hill. “One affects a part of your business and how it will be regulated. This affects the ability to allocate capital, make business decisions based on merit. It affects the heart and soul of capitalism.”

At issue is Boeing’s decision to have a second production line for its new Dreamliner jet in South Carolina, a right-to-work state that generally prohibits mandatory union membership. That decision came after Boeing executives expressed fear that work stoppages at their unionized operations in the state of Washington could hurt their business.

The labor board found that to be retaliation against union workers and issued its complaint, which will go before an administrative law judge on June 14 in Seattle. 

Other recent decisions by the labor board also have drawn opposition, such as the move to sue Arizona for its recent constitutional amendment that requires all union elections to be decided by secret ballot. 

The backlash grew louder when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce helped organize a press conference this week where GOP heavyweights, such as South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, laid into the labor board’s complaint. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) used the occasion to suggest that the complaint is evidence of a White House “enemies list.”

Randy Johnson, the Chamber’s senior vice president of labor, immigration and employee benefits, said the complaint ranks high among his priorities.

“I would say it’s at the top,” Johnson said. The Chamber executive said a recent meeting of the business group’s labor relations committee was full of concerns over what the complaint means.

“The room was packed — labor lawyers from across the country — and they all share a similar view that this is a crazy decision,” Johnson said.

The White House has remained silent on the issue despite calls by Republicans for the president to weigh in.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday the labor board “is an independent agency” and that the White House does “not get involved in particular enforcement matters of independent agencies.”

The flood of attention has resulted in increased oversight for the labor board.

Angry members of Congress have filed letters, made threats to cut funding and offered requests for documents in cases pending before the labor board. The board’s acting general counsel, Lafe Solomon, will likely never see his nomination make it out of the Senate due to lawmakers’ outrage.

In response to the complaint, Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Graham introduced legislation Thursday that would preserve states’ right-to-work laws.

Despite the outcry against the NLRB — with a $282 million budget this year and more than 1,600 employees — its funding has remained relatively unscathed. In the compromise deal to prevent a government shutdown last month, the labor board’s budget was only reduced by about $500,000, or a 0.2 percent cut — about the same as other administrative agencies.

That comes after House Republicans passed a continuing resolution for fiscal 2011 that would have slashed the labor board’s funding by $50 million, an 18 percent reduction.

Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) tried to defund the agency entirely, but his amendment to the continuing resolution was shot down on the House floor in a 176-250 vote. Sixty House Republicans voted against defunding the labor board.

Democrats and labor allies have begun to speak up in the NLRB’s defense.

On Wednesday, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) took to the Senate floor to defend the agency.

“This kind of interference is inappropriate. It is disgraceful and dangerous. We wouldn’t allow threats to prosecutors or U.S. attorneys, trying to stop them from moving forward with charges they see fit to bring to the courts,” Reid said. “It may not be illegal, but it’s no better than the retaliation and intimidation that is the fundamental question in this case. It should stop.”

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), ranking member on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said a bigger agenda is afoot and that Republicans are going after not just the Boeing complaint or the labor board but labor protections themselves.

Miller said after their failures to defund the labor board, Republicans are trying to discredit the board by focusing on the Boeing complaint.

“It’s no surprise,” Miller said. “If they can’t kill it, they will try to wound it.”