The absurd framing of the Boeing labor dispute

The National Labor Relations Board ruled in April that Boeing’s decision to locate a plant in South Carolina was a form of illegal retaliation against union workers in Washington. Immediately after the decision of the board, opponents of organized labor began working to manufacture outrage at this clear cut enforcement of labor law.

The National Labor Relations Act grants workers the right to form labor unions, and the right to “engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” It forbids employer retaliation for exercising these rights, and specifically forbids hiring practices that seek to discourage membership in labor organizations.

When Boeing CEO Jim Albaugh remarked in March that the “overriding factor” in his decision to expand into South Carolina “was that [Boeing] can’t afford to have a work stoppage every three years,” he was acting illegally. Remarking that production is being located in South Carolina in response to previous strikes is about as clear an instance of retaliation that you will ever find.

In fact, what is most surprising in this case is not that the NLRB made the decision that it did, but that Albaugh publicly revealed that union avoidance was the primary motivation of his decision. There is no doubt that firms silently violate labor laws often by relocating to punish union activity, but rarely are they bold enough to admit it.

Instead of discussing the legality or legitimacy of management retaliation — which is what the NLRB ruling is actually about — somehow the issue has been framed as one about the right of firms to build where they would like. The usual camp of perennial labor opponents charged that the NLRB was out of control, trying do destroy jobs, and mimicking Soviet-style central planning.

Tim Pawlenty put forward the clearest articulation of that spin, remarking that “a federal agency telling an American business in a supposedly free market that it can’t grow a business or start a business in another state is one of the most outrageous things I have seen.” That of course would be outrageous if that is what the NLRB actually ruled. On the other hand, telling a business that it cannot retaliate against workers exercising legally protected rights is not outrageous at all.

This kind of misleading framing is normal politics though, and there is extra incentive to lay it on thick as Republican presidential candidates are vying for an endorsement from South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley in that important primary state.

That opponents of organized labor would try to spin and disrupt a clear cut case of labor law violations is not surprising, but the total lack of any spirited response is, well, not surprising either. Barack Obama — in his typical center-right manner — declined to comment on the particular case, saying instead that “as a general proposition, companies need to have the freedom to relocate.” He followed that proclamation with a broad statement about the harmful effects of labor-management conflict.

Teamsters’ reformer Sandy Pope gives a decent defense of the NLRB action, one that others would be wise to copy. However, even Pope’s defense falters a bit in the deeper debate about the importance of preventing retaliation, getting bogged down in the distracting rhetoric of job creation which this case has nothing to do with.

These kinds of weak responses allow the issue to continue to be framed as a matter of the NLRB preventing businesses from opening up shop wherever they would like. Unless labor supporters are able to correct the framing of the issue as one of retaliation — which is after all what the case is actually about — the opponents of organized labor will score at least a public relations victory out of an otherwise very legitimate NLRB action.