According to its website,
The National Labor Relations Board is an independent federal agency that protects the rights of private sector employees to join together, with or without a union, to improve their wages and working conditions.
Under the National Labor Relations Act, the NLRB is tasked with protecting workers from both employers and unions, should it be necessary. Among the standard "examples of employer conduct that violates the law" found on the NLRB's website is this:
Transferring, laying off, terminating, assigning employees more difficult work tasks, or otherwise punishing employees because they engaged in union or protected concerted activity.
That's the crux of the Boeing case. Boeing did not just move production of its Dreamliner from Washington to South Carolina. It did so in direct retaliation for a strike by workers in Washington, as its executives clearly conveyed in interviews. This is in violation of the very basic principle of the National Labor Relations Act quoted above: you don't get to punish workers for exercising their legal rights. As labor scholar John Logan writes in The Hill,
The NLRB is not telling a private company where it can and cannot do business.
Under U.S. law, Boeing has a right to transfer work from Washington to South Carolina for good reasons, bad reasons, or no reason at all. But it is not allowed to transfer work for discriminatory reasons - in this case, retaliation for Washington workers exercising their right to strike. Boeing has claimed that the NLRB complaint takes out of context remarks on the motivation behind the transfer of work. The comments in question are about as clear as one could imagine. The "over-riding factor" in the decision to locate the jobs in South Carolina, Boeing's executive vice president explained, was the need to avoid further work stoppages.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has pushed Republican presidential candidates to condemn the NLRB complaint, and they've responded with an avalanche of bullshit:
Mitt Romney called it a "power grab." Herman Cain said it was "completely unacceptable ... political games." Tim Pawlenty called it "another outrageous overreach by the federal government." And Newt Gingrich accused the labor board of "basically breaking the law."
Breaking the law; upholding the law. One of those. Most recently, Jon Huntsman called for President Obama to "step in." To prevent a federal agency from doing its job.
The next freakout is where Republicans tipped their hand about what's really going on here. The National Labor Relations Board proposed some modest steps to streamline union representation elections and reduce frivolous litigation and, as Greg Sargent writes,
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is already denouncing the reforms as one of the Obama administration’s “biggest gifts yet to organized labor,” as well as an attempt to “bully companies into relinquishing their free speech rights.”
Oooh, that sounds big, right? And it goes on from there; Media Matters has a roundup of hyperventilation about "quickie elections." Except that as Sargent continues:
But groups like the Chamber can be expected to attack virtually anything anyone proposes in the way of labor reform of any kind. For instance, the Chamber attacked an altogether unrelated reform proposal some time ago in the same terms, denouncing it as “probably the most significant handout to organized labor that we’ve seen in this administration.”
The Chamber, Nikki Haley, Republican presidential candidates, and their ilk know few people follow NLRB or Department of Labor actions all that closely, and by wailing about "handouts" and "bullying" and "power grabs" they can convince at least some to just assume that these actions must be a big deal. To an extent, both the Boeing complaint and the new rule are a big deal. The barriers workers face when it comes to joining a union are so massive and entrenched that anything that lowers those barriers, however fractionally, is important to them. But, to continue the barrier metaphor for a minute, this new rule is more a matter of putting one or two handholds in the 30-foot anti-union wall than of installing a monorail to smoothly convey workers over it. And the Boeing complaint is like saying, "No, companies aren't allowed to stand on top of the barrier kicking people in the face."