H. L. Mencken defined puritanism as the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy. The National Labor Relations Board is haunted by the fear that a company somewhere might be creating jobs with a nonunionized work force.
Boeing has run afoul of that fear by investing more than $1 billion in a new plant in the right-to-work state of South Carolina. With only the flimsiest legal justification, the board wants to force Boeing to reverse course and locate the facility with its current operations in Washington State, where its workers are unionized.
The NLRB’s claims are laughable on their face, although Boeing — trying to run a business in a highly competitive global market — can be forgiven for missing the joke. The board accuses Boeing of “interfering with, restraining, and coercing” its union employees in the exercise of their rights by making a thoroughly understandable business decision.
This is putting not a thumb, but a fist on the scale in favor of the unions. A writer at the liberal The New Republic says it “may be the most radical thing the Obama administration has done.” It’s an attempt to keep companies with the misfortune of operating in union-heavy states in perpetual thrall to organized labor.
The CEO of Boeing stands accused of saying the company could ill afford the “strikes happening every three to four years in Puget Sound.” In a memo, paraphrased in the NLRB complaint, Boeing management said it wanted “to reduce vulnerability to delivery disruptions caused by work stoppages.” What’s notable about these statements is that they are so obvious, they should go without saying.
As the NLRB itself notes, Boeing suffered strikes with some regularity, in 1977, 1989, 1995, 2005, and 2008. These job actions weren’t good for business, or the unions wouldn’t have undertaken them: Their express purpose is to inflict pain on the company. The logic of the NLRB’s position is that businesses shouldn’t notice strikes, and if they do, they should learn to like them and never factor their potential cost into investment decisions. At bottom, the executives of Boeing are guilty of a thought crime.
There are rules against “runaway shops” (i.e., picking up and moving a plant to evade a union) and against retaliating against workers for striking or organizing. Boeing’s decision to expand its business in South Carolina is manifestly none of those things. It is leaving its Washington State facility intact. In fact, Boeing has expanded it, adding 2,000 jobs. When the Charleston facility is brought online, Boeing will build ten of its 787 Dreamliners a month — seven of them still in Washington State.
If every company were abusing its workers by continuing to employ them and adding to their ranks, the unemployment rate wouldn’t be 9 percent. The NLRB can’t point to any Boeing worker in Washington who has been harmed — let alone restrained or coerced — by the company’s decision to hire additional workers in South Carolina.
If the drift of jobs to right-to-work states in the South and elsewhere is a violation of the law, the union-dominated dinosaur of Michigan is the victim of the greatest mass breach of the National Labor Relations Act of all time. Perhaps the NLRB needs to give Nissan a stern talking-to; the company has done union workers everywhere the disservice of locating its American manufacturing plants in Tennessee and Mississippi.
The desperation of Pres. Barack Obama’s NLRB is understandable. It is fighting a losing battle against the inexorable erosion of the supports of the semi-guild system of 20th-century unionization. In its overreach, though, it is creating yet another disincentive for business to locate in union-heavy blue states. What company wants to risk having to fight a union and the federal government for years in court just to defend a common-sense business decision?
Clearly, Boeing made a grave mistake in its labor relations. It should have located its production in South Carolina from the beginning.
— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail, [email protected]. © 2011 by King Features Syndicate.