The left and right in American politics increasingly inhabit different planets. Perhaps this is nowhere more apparent than when it comes to labor issues.
For the left, there is only one issue worthy of discussion: the no-holds-barred assault on public-sector bargaining rights in Republican-controlled states all across the country.
For the right, public-sector unions are an important target, but the real story lies elsewhere: the “astonishing abuse of power” by the National Labor Relations Board, which issued a complaint against Boeing for expanding production at a nonunion plant in South Carolina rather than at a unionized one in Everett.
The NLRB contends that Boeing violated federal law against threatening or penalizing workers who engage in union activity.
Several aspects of the Boeing dispute stand out:
First, there is the fury that the NLRB complaint has aroused in conservative circles. Seldom short to anger, conservative pundits and politicians have gone apoplectic with rage on this in a way not seen for years.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., fumed that the Obama administration’s NLRB was “acting like thugs … from a Third World country.” DeMint called the decision a “government-led act of intimidation” against firms that choose to manufacture in the nation’s 22 right-to-work states – ones, like South Carolina, that outlaw union security agreements. The state’s other senator, Lindsay Graham, called the complaint “politics run amok.”
Right-wing pundits have also expressed their outrage at the NLRB’s action, calling it the “persecution of Boeing” and accusing the board of helping “forced-unionism states” (non-right-to-work states including Washington) to “build a regulatory Berlin Wall around their borders to keep their businesses from leaving.” And they have demanded that the Obama administration act decisively to rein in this “out-of-control” government agency.
None of these commentators have denied that Boeing engaged in the activity that is at the heart of the NLRB complaint. Boeing made the decision to expand production in South Carolina, it explained, in order to avoid the possibility of a strike at its unionized Washington plant. Rather, they believe that the law should not apply to a powerful corporation that is creating jobs in America rather than shipping them overseas.
Boeing, of course, has already shipped thousands of jobs overseas – particularly to China, which is an increasingly important buyer for its planes – with its factories in Washington and South Carolina acting as final assembly plants for an increasingly complex global supply chain.
Boeing also received enormous economic and tax incentives from South Carolina for agreeing to locate there and will benefit from lower labor costs in its nonunion South Carolina work force.
One must also put this self-righteous rage in perspective: In a time when unions are in imminent danger of going the same way as the dinosaurs, South Carolina has one of the weakest labor movements, with private-sector union membership currently standing at 2.8 percent.
Even by the extreme standards commonplace in the U.S., anti-union sentiment in South Carolina is intense. Gov. Nikki Haley – a Sarah Palin favorite and possible GOP vice presidential candidate – stated shortly after taking office in January that she would seek to keep unions out of the Palmetto State.
Appointing a lawyer from a well-known “union avoidance” firm to head her Labor Department, Haley announced: “We’re going to fight the unions, and I needed a partner to help me do it.”
Finally, in retaliation against the NLRB’s efforts to enforce the law, congressional Republicans are threatening to cut its funding and gearing up to oppose the reappointment of its Democratic members, who are among the most accomplished members of the agency in decades.
This is not the first time that Republicans have declared war on a Democratic NLRB, but the vitriol in the “job-destroying” accusations and threats of retaliation are more extreme this time round.
The past few months have witnessed a ferocious assault on public sector unions at the state level. Now conservatives have extended that attack to the one federal agency that still cares about the violation of fundamental labor rights.
If conservatives succeed in cowing the Obama administration on this issue, we may indeed by witnessing the last days of the labor movement in the United States. John Logan is professor and director of Labor and Employment Studies at San Francisco State University. Between 2000-2008 he was an assistant and associate professor of management at the London School of Economics and Political Science.