It would be nice to say that what happened to Green is unusual or that going to the government means she’ll get justice. But the truth is that companies fire workers for union activity all the time, and they often get away with it.
My latest Prospect piece explains why this fall could be the last opportunity for pro-labor NLRB decisions for a long time, and suggests what some significant ones could be:
Over the past months, the GOP has escalated attacks on the NLRB as a rogue job-killing agency, and Republicans’ willingness to use procedural tactics to block even recess appointments further raises the likelihood that once the pro-labor majority reaches its January expiration date, the board could be left to languish until the next presidential election. Although President Barack Obama inherited an NLRB with three vacancies, it took 14 months for him to fill any of them, due to a familiar combination of Republican obstruction and Democratic hesitance. Since then, “they’ve been playing defense,” says law professor and former NLRB attorney Jeff Hirsch, “and I don’t fault the board for that because they haven’t had a lot of time.” Come January, “I would be stunned if they actually get a third member on,” he adds. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka says Republicans are trying “everything they can to prevent the NLRB from actually doing what it’s intended to do.”
My feature in next month’s Dollars & Sense labor issue is on news stands this week and online now:
So whatever the result, the Boeing case is less a story about the potency of current labor law than about the power of the strike on the one hand and the threat of retaliation on the other. It’s the story of workers who have refused to believe that they should cede a hard-won package of middle-class wages and workplace protections in the face of a major company’s multi-year effort to persuade or intimidate them into backing down. Now, after decades during which Puget Sound has been the only place Boeing assembles commercial aircraft, workers are right to recognize that the power to move work elsewhere has become a powerful weapon in management’s arsenal.
It was frustrating this summer seeing half the coverage of the Boeing NLRB complaint fail to mention retaliation for striking, and none of it address why Boeing workers have chosen to go on strike five times in three decades. So I went to Puget Sound to hear from veterans of the Boeing strikes. Check out the piece. And if you’re looking for a response to the claims of GOP politicians (echoed last week by NYT columnist Joe Nocera) about the case, here’s something I wrote in May.
At his press conference yesterday, President Obama made another move to distance himself from the NLRB’s complaint against Boeing for anti-union retaliation. While insisting he wouldn’t get into the merits of the case, Obama took the chance to emphasize the importance of capital mobility within the United States.
Here’s a different way he could have answered the question:
“There’s an legal process underway here, both Boeing and the union are having their day in court, and I’m not going to weigh in on what the evidence will show. I’m always happy to see cases like this reach a settlement both sides can live with – but that’s up to the parties. What I do know is this: there’s an important principle at issue here – the protection of workers’ right to engage in collective action without being punished. Workers taking action together for their families and their communities is part of what has made this country great. Every worker, union or not, should know that there are laws not just regulating their working conditions but also protecting their right to push to make their jobs better. On my watch, those laws will be enforced.”
Same refusal to judge the merits of the case. But a very different emphasis.
Jim DeMint Communications Advisor Amanda Carpenter yesterday tweeted a link to a Wall Street Journal story on a motion filed by three South Carolina Boeing employees working with the National Right to Work Foundation. Boeing, as I explained in this piece, is charged by the NLRB’s General Counsel with retaliating against union members in Washington State by transferring a new line of airliners to South Carolina. The three workers, at least one of whom was active in campaigning to get rid of the Machinists union at the South Carolina plant, want to intervene in the case in defense of Boeing. Carpenter is presumably tweeting (on her personal feed) the article because she likes seeing Boeing employees siding with the company (at least three, that is). But I’d say the most revealing piece of the WSJ story is buried in the sixth paragraph (emphasis mine):
When Boeing bought one of the pre-existing 787 facilities in the state, the production employees working there at the time were represented by the Machinists union and Boeing was “more than willing to work with” the union, the motion says. Still, one of the three employees now seeking to intervene successfully led an effort to decertify the union at that plant in September 2009, in part to improve Boeing’s chances of building the new facility, the motion says.
So one of the Boeing workers thought going non-union would improve the chances of Boeing moving production to South Carolina. How does that help Boeing’s case that it doesn’t retaliate against union activity? Would be interesting to know if any Boeing management suggested to this worker that getting rid of the union would be seen favorably by the company. (That could have been grounds for another Unfair Labor Practice charge). Maybe the Journal could do a follow-up story on the topic.
I tweeted at Carpenter yesterday to get her take on this part of the story, but so far no response.
During the Bush years, many progressives gave up hope that the government could really make companies pay when they broke the law. Now a big company may have to pay a big price for illegally punishing workers. Last month the National Labor Relations Board, the federal body that enforces labor law, issued a complaint charging that Boeing illegally transferred the production of a line of aircraft out of Washington State. Boeing is accused of transferring the production to punish the workers there for going on strike. Punishing workers for union activity is retaliation, and it’s illegal. If Boeing is found guilty, it could be made to transfer the whole production line back. Naturally, the prospect of the Labor Board seriously enforcing labor law has Republicans freaking out…
Right-wingers are rising to defend Boeing, bash the NLRB, and blame Obama. But rather than debate retaliation against workers, conservatives want to conjure phantom menaces: bureaucrats micro-managing production, Democrats punishing “Right to Work” states, and union bosses paralyzing job creators.
Check it out.
While I don’t at all agree with Thomas Geoghegan’s contention in Which Side Are You On that the ACLU’s agenda, while noble, wouldn’t “cost anyone anything” to implement, he does speak to a well-justified frustration many “labor liberals” feel at the difficulty of stirring certain civil libertarians to get up in arms about the civil liberties of workers on and off the job. Not only are positive rights (like economic security) crucial to the meaningful exercise of negative rights (like free speech), positive and negative rights frequently and fundamentally intersect, perhaps nowhere moreso than the workplaces in which millons spend the majority of their waking hours. Opposition to civil liberties comes not only from those who see in others’ exercise of their rights a threat to their values but also from those who see in others’ exercise of their rights a threat to their economic interests. That’s why the right of workers to speak, assemble, and organize on and off the job has always been threatened in this country. And that’s why it’s so often fallen to unions, in Nathan Newman’s words, to “bring the first Amendment to the workplace.” It’s worth asking (as Geoghegan was trying, though through a troubling turn of phrase, to do) why the idea of deprivation of civil liberties affects many of us more viscerally than the idea of economic deprivation. But even those who only get up in arms over the former should be disturbed that, as Geoghegan has been reminding us for years, American law offers you no protection against being fired for expressing your political beliefs, and promises the weakest of responses to employers who threaten, punish, or fire workers seeking to bargain collectively.
What are the stakes? The Bush-appointed majority on the National Labor Relations Board provided a reminder last month when it upheld a security firm’s rule that bars its employees from “fraternizing” with each other on or off the job. Guardsmark insisted that its employees give up their right to associate with each other socially on their own time as a condition of employment, and the NLRB blessed the company to keep the rule in place.