Tennessean: Labor board's action in Boeing case may curb efforts to lure jobs to TN

NLRB officials want Boeing to move new plant and jobs from right-to-work state of South Carolina back to Washington

Posted on May 13, 2011

WASHINGTON — Auto and other manufacturing plants dot the landscape in Tennessee, thanks partly to the state’s right-to-work law, which makes unionizing difficult.

Such laws are drawing new controversy now because of allegations by a federal panel that Boeing engaged in unfair labor practices by deciding to locate a plant in South Carolina, a right-to-work state, instead of Washington state.

Republican politicians and business leaders in Tennessee say the allegations by the independent National Labor Relations Board could hamper efforts to bring auto plants and other manufacturers to the state.

Democrats and union advocates counter that critics of the complaint are overreacting and trying to interfere in the NLRB’s business.

The case has become a political touchstone in the debate over union rights and union support for Democratic President Barack Obama as he seeks a second term.

In April, the NLRB filed a complaint against Boeing, saying the company had violated two sections of the National Labor Relations Act. The complaint said the company had threatened employees for engaging in protected union activities. It also said Boeing had retaliated for past strikes by its unions by building a plant in South Carolina — a right-to-work state — that will employ non-union employees.

The NLRB is an independent agency responsible for overseeing attempts by employees to organize into unions and to deal with claims of unfair labor practices by employers. The board receives complaints, in this case from the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. Staff decide whether a complaint should be pursued. If so, a hearing is held before an administrative law judge, whose decision is then forwarded to the board, which may adopt or reject the judge's recommendation. If adopted, the board issues an order to remedy the unfair practice. Board decisions can be appealed to the federal appeals courts.

Relocate plant

But it’s the proposed punishment that has caused the biggest stir: NLRB officials want Boeing to move the 787 Dreamliner plant and the jobs that go with it from South Carolina back to Washington .

“I can’t think of one single action the federal government can take that will make it harder to create new jobs in Tennessee,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander.

Tennessee is home to about 1,000 auto-related companies employing about 105,000 workers, according to state economic development officials.

Alexander introduced legislation Thursday that would reaffirm right-to-work laws in place in 22 states and would block the NLRB’s complaint against Boeing.

Right-to-work laws prohibit agreements between employers and unions that require workers to join the unions and pay dues.

Companies often cite the friendly labor environment in Tennessee and other right-to-work states, mostly in the South, when deciding where to locate.

Boeing executives specifically said, in some public comments, that union troubles in Washington were key to their decision to put the Dreamliner plant in South Carolina.

In a videotaped interview with The Seattle Times in March 2010, Boeing Executive Vice President Jim Albaugh said the overriding factor in choosing South Carolina “was not the business climate. And it was not the wages we are paying today. … It was that we can’t afford to have a work stoppage every three years.”

“Boeing was really trying to send a message to their employees,” said Angela Cornell, who heads the Labor Law Clinic at Cornell University Law School. “It is very intimidating to workers.”

Boeing says the NLRB’s complaint mischaracterizes comments by company officials.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada brought the issue to the Senate floor on Wednesday, saying Republicans want to intimidate the NLRB and “weaken our system of checks and balances.”

The five-member board and its general counsel are appointed by the president.

Reid lashed out at Republicans for threatening to block confirmation of NLRB General Counsel Lafe Solomon and board member Craig Becker because of the Boeing complaint.

“Let’s be honest: Republicans are threatened by unions,” Reid said.

Reaction by the GOP and business leaders has been quick and loud.

Attorneys general from nine states have written Congress and Solomon asking that the complaint be withdrawn. A group of House Republicans has demanded the NLRB turn over documents related to the case, and GOP senators wrote Obama asking him to withdraw the Solomon and Becker nominations.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and the state’s two GOP senators have called on Obama to speak out against the complaint.

“It is absurd, in this country that represents free enterprise, that one unaccountable, unelected, unconfirmed acting general counsel can threaten thousands of jobs,” Sen. Jim DeMint said at a news conference Tuesday at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce headquarters in Washington. “This is something you would expect in a Third World country. This is thuggery at its worst.”

Deborah Woolley, president of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said she has followed the NLRB for two decades and has never seen anything like the Boeing complaint or the proposed punishment.

“It is frightening for what it means to industry,” Woolley said.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam believes the state’s right-to-work law is “an important asset when it comes to creating jobs and recruiting businesses to Tennessee,” spokesman Dave Smith said in an email.

“It is a major component of the already strong business-friendly environment the governor is focused on improving,” Smith said.

Cornell, the law professor, said reaction to the complaint has been exaggerated. In 2006, she said, NLRB officials ordered DuPont to rehire and compensate 500 workers and reinstall machinery it had removed from a plant in Tonawanda, N.Y., when it outsourced the jobs.

She said the complaint filed by the NLRB is just the first step in a long process.

The next step is a hearing June 14 before an administrative law judge in Seattle.