Labor Relations Board’s operations are designed to look to outsiders as if they
were judicial in nature. There’s a prosecutor of sorts, the general counsel,
and the board’s decisions read like judicial opinions. But in reality, the NLRB
operates in a twilight zone — its members are generally representatives of the
two main political parties with the majority chosen from the president’s party,
and the majority bloc can be relied on to reward its friends and punish its
adversaries. There being a Democratic administration in Washington now, it’s
time for the unions to get all the close calls. And even the ones that
shouldn’t be close.
At the end of
March the general counsel brought up a complaint against aircraft manufacturer
Boeing for its decision to open up a new assembly line for its 787 “Dreamliner”
in North Charleston, S.C. The original line at Boeing’s Puget Sound plant in
the state of Washington remains open, but that line has been shut down by two
lengthy strikes called by the International Association of Machinists over the
last six years. Boeing is hedging its bets by setting up a second line for the
popular aircraft at a non-union shop in a state with right-to-work protections for employees.
The complaint alleges that Boeing’s actions constituted illegal discrimination
against union workers.
On the surface
the prosecution has a case. It’s fairly clear that labor relations were a
factor in Boeing’s decision to set up shop in South Carolina. The NLRB is
supposed to prevent employers from discriminating against employees who engage
in “protected activities,” such as joining unions and going on strike.
But to say that
Boeing cannot take notice of troubled labor relations at Puget Sound as it
makes plans to build more airplanes is to say that Boeing must make itself more vulnerable to a strike, and
arguably punishes the South Carolina workers for their apparent preference to remain
non-union. Boeing’s South Carolina workers have the right to refrain from unionizing, too, and the NLRB
is supposed to protect their rights as well.
It doesn’t help
matters that everyone is dealing with a statute, the National Labor Relations
Act, that is vague about what companies and unions are actually allowed to do. Unionized
workers in Puget Sound still have steady jobs, but there will be less work for
them, fewer jobs and less overtime, than there might have been. Is this
discrimination? As Robert Verbruggen points out in a recent article at National
Review, the general counsel’s complaint against Boeing “comes out of left field,”
but it’s still in line with “the murky words of the law itself,” leaving Boeing
subject to the caprices of a politicized labor board.
IAM’s wisdom has
been dubious, especially from the workers’ perspective. The 2005 strike lasted
28 days. The 2008 strike lasted eight weeks, and according to The New York
Times workers missed out on $7,000 in base pay. The Seattle Times accounts from
the end of the strike are vague as to whether or not workers benefitted much
from the walkout. For its part Boeing likely lost $2 billion on account of the
If the National
Labor Relations Board opts to punish Boeing for setting up shop in South
Carolina, the result is liable to be that employers will be hamstrung by
radicalized union officials, while union officials will be in a position to
call strikes with near impunity, giving little regard to benefits for workers
or damage to employers.
There are those
who would argue that the ultimate purpose of this whole thing is to put the right-to-work
movement and less unionized states at a disadvantage by preventing companies
from creating new jobs in those states, but this could easily backfire, with
new companies afraid to locate in heavily unionized states like Michigan in the
first place because the law will make it harder for them to expand elsewhere.
The most likely
result is everyone loses. If there’s one thing a struggling American economy
does not need, it’s the further empowerment of radical union officials and the
disruption of more strikes. Congress should be looking for ways to rein in the
National Labor Relations Board and ensure that employers are free to protect
themselves from strikes called by radical union officials.
Paul Kersey is
director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research
and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint
in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center
are properly cited.