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‘Citizen Boeing’ must obey the law like the rest of us

By Stan Sorscher

Recently, an investigation by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) determined that Boeing threatened and intimidated its unionized workers in Washington state when it opened a second assembly line for the new 787 airplane in South Carolina.

The facts are well-documented. Boeing executives repeatedly connected the move to strikes over the years by the Machinists’ union. Boeing made this a statewide issue, getting its message through to elected officials, newspapers and other media, civic groups and residents around Washington state.

One state legislator was so fed up with pressure from Boeing that he introduced a bill saying lobbyists may not “threaten any legislator … with the relocation of manufacturing jobs … involving commercial airplane manufacturing, based upon the outcome of any pending or proposed legislation.”

Objections to the NLRB complaint by Boeing and its supporters have been exceptionally harsh and intense. Boeing, the financial press and sympathetic elected officials in South Carolina brush aside the threats Boeing made to employees. The real issue, they say, is that the NLRB finding prevents Boeing from moving work to South Carolina.

I’ve tried to follow this logic. I think it goes like this: The only way to move work from Washington to South Carolina is to threaten workers. If you cannot threaten workers in Washington, then it’s impossible to move work to South Carolina. Laws prohibiting such threats cannot seriously apply to us, so it’s OK when we do it. Something like that.

By the way, that mentality explains a lot about why the 787 program is three years late and billions of dollars over budget.

Normally in America, an employer must follow certain minimum standards of behavior. If I am filling a job opening, I cannot say, “Sorry, we don’t hire Italians, or veterans, or older workers.” In practice, worker protections are far from perfect. However, in this case Boeing threatened retaliation openly, repeatedly and convincingly.

After the NLRB finding, Boeing and political allies threatened the acting general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) — the person who conducted the investigation. Then they threatened funding for the entire National Labor Relations Board. Then they threatened the law itself, seeking to forbid any enforcement similar to the case with Boeing. Political allies demanded that the NLRB officials turn over internal documents, and subject themselves to threatening intrusion in Congress.

Let’s be clear about the issue. Businesses all over America, using moderately competent legal advisers, are able to move work to South Carolina. Boeing recently raised the salary of its legal counsel to $3.7 million. He and his very capable staff can move work to South Carolina and comply with America’s very modest labor laws.

Boeing’s public campaign puts itself not just above the law, but in charge of revising the law to suit its convenience. What’s remarkable here is that Boeing sees itself as the victim.

The proposed remedy is to move work back. The NLRB investigator knows that Boeing is already moving work back, and is currently building a new assembly line in the original factory. Every communication from the NLRB encourages the parties to negotiate a settlement, which is typical in these cases.

At a broader level, we need to ask, how does Boeing see its role in American life? Boeing CEO Jim McNerney co-chairs the President’s Export Commission, with a goal of doubling exports in five years. This commission is near the heart of whatever manufacturing strategy we will create as a country. It’s worth asking whether Mr. McNerney sees himself as acting in the public interest in that role, or does he see public policy as his tool for pursuing his narrow self-interest as an industrialist?

A public servant would start by respecting the rule of law, and by acknowledging that workers, communities and government are legitimate stakeholders in creating shared prosperity.

Stan Sorscher is labor representative at the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA), a union representing more than 24,000 workers in Washington, Kansas, Oregon, Utah, Texas and California. This column appears in the June 10 edition of the Puget Sound Business Journal and is cross-posted here with the author’s permission.

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