U.S. Lawyer Fighting Boeing Says He Regrets Job Fears

The U.S. lawyer who filed a labor complaint against Boeing Co. over a nonunion plant the aerospace company opened in South Carolina said he regrets the fear the dispute has caused workers there about their jobs.

“These are difficult economic times, and I truly regret the anxiety this case has caused them and their families,” Lafe Solomon, acting general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, told a congressional hearing today in the state. “The issuance of the complaint was not intended to harm the workers of South Carolina but rather to protect the rights of workers.”

The NLRB said in the April 20 complaint that Boeing built the nonunion assembly plant for its new 787 Dreamliner in North Charleston, South Carolina, in retaliation for work stoppages by unions at its Seattle-area production hub. At a hearing in North Charleston today before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Republicans pressed Solomon to show evidence the company was punishing the Machinists union.

“Can you name me a single, solitary worker in Washington state” who lost jobs or benefits? asked Representative Trey Gowdy of South Carolina. “Where is the retaliation?”

Solomon repeatedly responded that he couldn’t “at this time” provide evidence of such an effect. “We believe evidence will show Boeing was motivated by retaliation,” he said.

‘Disastrous Consequences’

Republicans who lead the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee called today’s hearing in North Charleston to examine what they called the NLRB’s “unionization through regulation.”

“The disastrous consequences that the effort to penalize Boeing will have on the economy of South Carolina, and the collateral damage that this unprecedented action will have on other right-to-work states, warrants” scrutiny, Representative Darrell Issa of California, the committee’s chairman, said in his opening statement.

Boeing, the world’s largest aerospace company, should be required to build an additional 787 assembly line in Washington state as a remedy, according to Solomon. A hearing on the complaint began June 14 in Seattle before an administrative law judge, who urged the Chicago-based company and the union to settle their differences.

‘Right to Protest’

Representative Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat, said at today’s committee hearing that the complaint was a legitimate effort to uphold the “right to protest” by union workers. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the delegate representing the District of Colombia, said the hearing appeared “to taint a legal proceeding” by pressuring the labor board.

The case has galvanized Republicans who vowed to block President Barack Obama’s nomination of Solomon, 61, as general counsel and said the agency is favoring labor while hurting business in its investigations of unfair-labor complaints.

“Boeing is being treated unfairly, and if the NLRB has its way, thousands of workers in South Carolina will be forced to pay the price for these frivolous actions,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said today in a letter to the committee. “South Carolinians will lose their jobs, health care coverage, retirement contributions and other benefits of employment directly as a result of the actions of the NLRB.”

Daley’s Boeing Role

The government complaint is “especially astounding” considering that William Daley, who is now Obama’s chief of staff, was on Boeing’s board when the decision was made to open the South Carolina plant, Graham said.

The NLRB complaint was issued only after the parties failed to resolve the dispute, Solomon said in his testimony. He appeared at today’s hearing after the committee threatened him with a subpoena. He wrote Issa on June 10 that he was concerned about lawmakers questioning “an agency acting in its quasi-judicial capacity about its decisions in a pending case.”

The NLRB complaint said statements made by Boeing executives about the disruptive effects of strikes indicate the planemaker built the South Carolina plant to punish union employees in Washington state’s Puget Sound area for exercising their rights. The company has denied anti-union motives.

Communications ‘Permissible’

“It is permissible for employers to communicate to employees and union representatives the economic reasons that are responsible for important business changes,” Philip A. Miscimarra, a partner in Chicago at Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP, said in prepared testimony. Miscimarra’s clients have included businesses and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“They are violating my right to work with a choice,” Cynthia D. Ramaker, of Ladson, South Carolina, an employee at the nonunion Boeing plant, said of the NLRB in prepared testimony. “Isn’t that what being an American is all about, a choice? That is my right.”

Boeing’s decision to build in South Carolina came after the Machinists’ 26,000 workers stopped work for two months in 2008, their fourth strike since 1989.

The South Carolina factory is the first commercial plant Boeing has built outside of the Seattle area.

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