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President Obama tips his hand on Boeing and the NLRB

June 30, 2011 | 11:24 am

Obama Business groups and their allies in Washington have been trying for weeks to get President Obama to denounce the complaint that the National Labor Relations Board brought against Boeing, to no avail. A reporter put the question to Obama directly on Wednesday, and got something closer to a denunciation -- of part of the complaint, at least.

Here's the background. Boeing is locked in a fierce competition with European aircraft manufacturer Airbus over a new breed of supersized passenger jets. Although Boeing's entry, the 787 Dreamliner, and Airbus' counterpart, the A380, have both been delayed technical problems, Boeing also had to contend with a strike in 2008 by some of the workers building its planes. Shortly after it settled that strike, Boeing announced that it was launching a second production line for the Dreamliner in South Carolina, where "right to work" laws deter union organizing. One reason the second line was moved out of the Puget Sound region, company executives said, was to avoid the threat of more strikes.

The NLRB's acting general counsel filed a complaint in April accusing Boeing of retaliating illegally against union workers for exercising their right to strike. Instead of just seeking fines against the company, however, the complaint demanded that the production line in South Carolina be shut down and the work moved back to Boeing's unionized facilities in Washington and Oregon.

On Wednesday, Obama was asked, "Do you think that the NLRB complaint against Boeing ... is an example of the kinds of regulations that chill job growth, and also that you yourself have called 'just plain dumb'?" His answer was cagey. After talking about the need to spend more on transportation construction projects, he said:

Now, you asked specifically about one decision that was made by the National Labor Relations Board, the NLRB, and this relates to Boeing.  Essentially, the NLRB made a finding that Boeing had not followed the law in making a decision to move a plant.  And it's an independent agency.  It's going before a judge.  So I don't want to get into the details of the case.  I don't know all the facts.  That's going to be up to a judge to decide.

If he'd stopped there, it would have been a triumph of evasiveness. But then he added something substantive:

What I do know is this: that as a general proposition, companies need to have the freedom to relocate.  They have to follow the law, but that's part of our system.  And if they’re choosing to relocate here in the United States, that's a good thing.  And what it doesn’t make -- what I think defies common sense would be a notion that we would be shutting down a plant or laying off workers because labor and management can't come to a sensible agreement.

He went on to utter a can't-we-all-just-get-along plea for Boeing and the union to settle the dispute, but that paean to compromise shouldn't obscure the message in the paragraph quoted above. His comment about companies needing the "freedom to relocate" is akin to saying the government shouldn't stop jobs from flowing to right-to-work states if that's where employers want to take them. And he underlined that sentiment by objecting strongly to the remedy proposed in the complaint --  namely, shutting down the new production line in South Carolina.

Some labor lawyers argue that Boeing's mistake wasn't expanding in South Carolina instead of Washington; it was telling Puget Sound workers that their strike led the company to move new jobs away from them. The Times' editorial board made the same point as Obama two weeks ago when it said the proposal to shut down the new plant was overkill. Yet the comments by Boeing executives raise the question of where to draw the line between honest disclosure and intimidation, and that's a question worth answering.

Related:

The NLRB vs. Boeing

Boeing: Dismissing workers rights or practicing good business?

How hard should it be to form a union?

-- Jon Healey

Credit: Jim Watson / AFP/Getty Images

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