Right-wing pundits and politicians have been in rare form over the past few weeks, with the National Labor Relations Board’s complaint against Boeing serving as a catalyst for their ramped up attack on workers’ rights. As usual, the facts have all too quickly been lost in the frenzy of overblown rhetoric and apocalyptic projections for businesses. The reality is much less remarkable: NLRB Acting General Counsel Lafe Solomon’s job is to enforce the law. And no company, not even Boeing, is above the law.
So let’s review: The congressionally-mandated mission of the NLRB is to enforce the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, a law that protects workers’ rights and promotes a level playing field for workers and businesses. The agency’s nonpartisan mission has been accepted by Presidents and legislators on both sides of the aisle for the past 75 years.
When it comes to Boeing, the company’s own statements to employees and the media indicated that it was moving production in response to workers at its Washington state facility exercising rights guaranteed under the NLRA. Given that the NLRB’s role is to investigate potential violations of the law, the agency had little choice but to respond. Far from overreach, Lafe Solomon was just doing his job.
Despite news headlines nationwide, claims that the complaint is a politically-motivated throwback to unions are a fabrication. The Obama administration had no part in issuing the complaint against Boeing — the NLRB is an independent federal agency. It was Acting General Counsel Lafe Solomon — a career civil servant who has spent nearly 30 years working for the Board under both Democrats and Republicans — who filed the complaint as a prosecutor whose job is to enforce the law.
Regardless of the facts, GOP legislators are using the case as an excuse to advance their ongoing attack on the NLRB. Politicians like Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have made repeated attempts to defund and dismantle the agency, and this is just the latest opportunity to do the work of their corporate donors by tearing down protections for workers.
Politics aside, what about the economic impact on businesses? To hear Boeing CEO Jim McNerney tell it, the NLRB intends to prevent businesses from relocating to states with so-called “right-to-work” laws on the books. In his view, the complaint poses a serious threat to companies’ ability to move production to more favorable environments and could even lead to outsourcing, as businesses flee America in favor of less stringent regulations overseas.
That would be troubling, if it were true, but let’s not confuse the issue. This case is about retaliation against workers for exercising their rights, and has nothing to do with right-to-work laws. Even in right-to-work states, it’s illegal to make business decisions for the purpose of penalizing workers or trying to prevent them from demonstrating their rights. The NLRB would respond the same way if a company moved to another facility within a single right-to-work state or even from a right-to-work state to a non-right-to-work state. The premise that companies cannot make business decisions for illegal reasons is nothing new — just imagine if businesses were free to relocate based on the race, age, or gender of their employees.
Right-wing commentators have also manipulated the facts by jumping to the conclusion that the case against Boeing is already closed. In truth, the complaint is only the first step of a legal process designed to determine whether the law has been violated. The company will have ample opportunity to make its case in court — hardly the death knell for free enterprise as we know it, and certainly no reason to start shipping jobs overseas.
On the contrary, protecting employees’ rights to advocate for a safe work environment, decent benefits, and fair pay gives workers the opportunity to sustain their families and power our economy with consumer spending.
As impervious to the facts as ever, there’s no doubt that right-wing politicians and pundits will continue their partisan rabblerousing over the NLRB’s complaint. But there’s a very simple answer to their attacks: Working people play by the rules, and businesses should too.
Kimberly Freeman Brown is executive director of American Rights at Work, a labor policy and advocacy organization. (This column, which originally appeared in The Hill, is reprinted with her permission.)