Does Boeing settlement mean NLRB's actions were for naught?
Out of all of the Obama administration's appointees, those on the National Labor Relations Board have been among the most productive -- and controversial. Two Obama appointees last year introduced a rule to speed up union elections, which awakened the ire of Republicans. The NLRB also launched an investigation into Boeing Co. for transferring airline assembly jobs from Seattle to a non-union shop in South Carolina, whch had become a hot-button issue on the campaign trail as business and labor interests butted heads.
The Boeing investigation could have had profound consequences for companies that are trying to avoid hiring union workers, economists say. But Boeing and the machinists union have reached a deal that creates new union jobs in the Seattle area in exchange for the machinists dropping any opposition to the South Carolina plant.
The reversal may be a disappointment for some labor activists who had hoped that the NLRB's actions would help labor stand up to business interests -- but it was probably the only way the issue could be resolved, said Harley Shaiken, a labor relations professor at Berkeley.
Though the NLRB issued the investigation because it thought Boeing's actions were potentially illegal, the political repercussions made the board's job more difficult than it had hoped, Shaiken said.
"The firestorm that was created was greater than anyone there would have imagined," he said.
A congressional subcommitee led by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) served the NLRB with its first subpeona since 1940; the U.S. Chamber of Commerce expressed "grave concern" over the investigation; the Obama administration, which is trying to court business leaders such as Boeing's chief executive, was put in a bind and avoided commenting.
"In the larger context, this is the best that could be done," said Shaiken, about the deal. "It does leave some questions unanswered -- but those are for the larger political process, not for the bargaining table."
A statement from the International Assn. of Machinists and Aerospace Workers lauded the jobs the agreement created, but did not mention the compromise about the South Carolina plant.
Expect these issues to come to the fore during the 2012 campaign. In the meantime, there may be one more immediate result: Companies have learned to be more circumspect when relocating jobs to non-union shops. Businesses will bring their legal teams in earlier when relocating employees, and be more cautious about the reasons they give when asked about relocating (a Boeing executive vice president had told the Seattle Times that the company couldn't put up with so many union-related work stoppages).
"The fight that took place won't make [companies] change their behavior," Shaiken said. "It will make them far more cautious about the reasons they give about moving, but it won't make them change behavior in one way or another."
There are signs that the NLRB's burst of activity won't last long. As David G. Savage reports in Thursday's Los Angeles Times, one of the board's three members is serving under a recess apppointment due to run out at the end of the year. If Republicans block the next appointees nominated by Obama, the board will lack a quorum and will be unable to adopt any rules.
-- Alana Semuels
Photo: Scott Olson / Getty Images