- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 28, 2011


The National Labor Relations Board functions in relative obscurity, drawing scant attention beyond management and union types who focus on industrial relations and labor issues. Even members of Congress generally pay little heed, while the public ignores it.

But a recent NLRB ruling looms large in the presidential campaign that’s getting under way.

As has been widely reported, the board ruled that by building a production facility in South Carolina, Boeing had improperly retaliated against the union-represented workforce in Washington state for periodically exercising its right to strike — and told the aerospace giant to do the work in the Pacific Northwest.

Strikes, of course, are a union weapon that businesses don’t much care for. In Boeing’s case, they can be quite costly, in added expenses and time — a couple of months delay can mean a couple of billion dollars — as well as lost future contracts, with potential customers shying away from unreliable partners.

And so Boeing made what could be deemed a rational business decision, to build a plant in South Carolina, a right-to-work state with more-pliant and less-expensive — albeit less-trained — workers. Its defenders say that no retaliation occurred because no one in Washington state was fired and no existing work was moved out of state.

The problem is that a senior Boeing executive was recorded suggesting that the company was in fact reacting to the unions tendency to strike. This could be deemed illegal retaliation.

It’s a tough case, with reasonable arguments on both sides.

But you would never know this from the reaction of Republicans who want to be president or their allies.

Defund the NLRB, demands Newt Gingrich; a history professor who apparently forgot that it was set up as an independent agency for a reason. The decision reflects a “power grab” to Mitt Romney, “Soviet Union” policies to Tim Pawlenty. Would-be presidential kingmaker Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina accused the NLRB of acting “like a bunch of thugs.”

In the America of 2011, one can apparently no longer simply disagree on an issue; those who hold differing viewpoints are essentially gangsters.

These responses are the intellectual equivalent of arguing against the invasion of Iraq by holding a sign reading “No war for oil.” By the way, aren’t conservatives supposed to believe in our institutions, and in the rule of law? Or is that only when they like the outcomes?

These are smart men and women, many with business experience, and they could make this a teachable moment, discussing the importance of creating jobs, of keeping work in America, of maintaining our global economic competitiveness — and explain why they regard this case as an object lesson against governmental meddling in the private sector.

In so doing, they could score their political points while also coming across as grown-ups to wavering independents. Moreover, they could boost public understanding of our industrial relations system, a key element of our economy.

Instead, they are acting like — take your pick — petulant children, shills for the Chamber of Commerce, demagogues. You dare rule against us, and we’re taking our ball — or our money — and going home.

After running the executive branch for 20 of the previous 28 years, free-market conservatives evidently assume as the norm a business-compliant NLRB that disregards labors positions. Well, as both political parties say when it suits their arguments, elections have consequences. And so, surprise, we just may see a few more pro-labor rulings coming from this National Labor Relations Board for at least the next 19 months.

So, ladies and gentlemen of the Republican presidential field, take a deep breath, count to 10, and make some reasoned arguments. You just may persuade some folks.

Philip Dine, author of “State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence,” is a Washington-based journalist and a frequent speaker on labor issues.

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