WASHINGTON — Everyone knows Jesse James was a criminal; he carried a gun and robbed banks. You don’t need a law degree to understand that he was breaking the law. We knew it; he knew it; everybody knew it.
Workplace law is different, but perfectly understandable. Boeing is a company that makes airplanes. We want them to make planes in the United States, employing American workers at good wages.
When Boeing says that it didn’t break the law, when anti-union elected officials from South Carolina gave Boeing a sweet deal to move their plant to their state, and the company launched a massive political and public relations campaign attacking the law enforcement agency — in this case, the National Labor Relations Board — what is a layman to think? Should we think that they are innocent? Or that they are guilty? Boeing isn’t exactly Jesse James — but let’s look at the facts.
Boeing announced that it was moving assembly work from its facility in the state of Washington to South Carolina.
The National Labor Relations Act (also known as the Wagner Act) permits workers to organize and bargain collectively, and prohibits employers from interfering with those rights. The NLRA was a critical part of the New Deal enacted under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and it is the law of the land — even though some might wish that it were not.
The NLRB is an independent agency and has a simple and transparent process of filing, investigating and hearing charges of unfair labor practices. A company has ample opportunity to make its case before the board and, if it loses, go to federal court.
But Boeing and its allies couldn’t just wait for their day in court. They began a massive disinformation campaign aimed at discrediting the NLRB for doing its job. Fortunately for Boeing, it has deeper pockets than Jesse James, lots of powerful allies, and lots of political power. Its CEO, W. James McNerney Jr., even chairs the Obama administration’s Export Council.
Boeing claims the NLRB overstepped its authority by determining that Boeing’s action was an unfair labor practice in retaliating against the union for exercising its legal rights. Boeing argues that the NLRB is discriminating against so-called “right-to-work” — or more accurately, anti-union — states.
In spite of the hyperbole of the anti-NLRB campaign, the law is the law, and there is nothing radical about the NLRB’s finding that the move was in retaliation for Boeing workers’ exercising their rights.
Companies have the right to locate facilities where they want, regardless of whether they are “right to work” states or not. Shifting work specifically in retaliation because workers exercised their legal collective bargaining rights, however, is a violation of law.
That is what Boeing did — publicly telegraphing its intentions in the press and in public statements in an effort to intimidate the union and win at the bargaining table.
At its heart, this case is about whether corporations that decide to ignore the law, break the law and intimidate workers can get away with it.
And it is about whether a government agency that enforces the law will be prevented from doing its job because members of Congress seek to interfere in their legitimate efforts to enforce the law.
Lawbreakers never want to be caught, prosecuted, or punished. Boeing’s McNerney won’t be sent to prison. Under the law, companies are merely required to bargain collectively and not retaliate against workers for exercising their rights under the law.
It is also a teachable moment for our nation about workplace law, worker’s rights and decent wages. Sometimes lawbreakers don’t carry guns and rob banks. Sometimes they wear suits and ties and rob workers unless the sheriff or, in this case the NLRB, makes them obey the law.
• Wilson is the national director of Americans for Democratic Action. Readers may write him at ADA, 1625 K Street NW, Suite 102, Washington, D.C. 20006; website: www.adaction.org.