Boeing Attacks its Workers and the NLRB

The current conflict between the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and the most virulently anti-union politicians in Congress represents an escalation in the ongoing attack against organized labor. The two sides are at odds over a complaint filed on April 20 by the NLRB against Boeing for moving jobs away from its union-represented workers in the Puget Sound area, to South Carolina, a so-called “right to work” state with extremely low unionization.

In response to the complaint, Boeing claimed that the transfer of jobs to the Charleston area was due to “lawful discrimination” against the organized workers on the basis that unionized workers damage company profits when they go on strike! Boeing is also attempting to portray Local 751 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM 751), as being against “job creation” since the company claims it is “creating jobs” by transferring them from Everett, Washington to Charleston, South Carolina. IAM 751 filed the original complaint with the NLRB in March 2010, and the associated court case in Seattle is ongoing.

Now, a committee within the House of Representatives is attempting to disrupt this case by demanding that the NLRB hand over thousands more documents than have already been produced, while at the same time threatening to revoke the NLRB’s top lawyer’s license to practice law.

In spite of the obvious and absurd flaws in Boeing’s “job creation” argument, some people are willing to latch onto this claim if made loudly enough by any entity that has demonstrated the ability to create good jobs. Boeing certainly could create more jobs if it wanted to, even in this economic climate.

Boeing posted a net profit of $941 million for the second quarter 2011, up 20% from the same time last year. Meanwhile, the need for jobs is enormous in South Carolina, where hundreds of thousands of workers have had a hard time finding any job at all, much less a good job. South Carolina is one of the states with the least number of union members (4.6%), and it has a whopping 10.9% unemployment rate. Only two states have a higher unemployment rate than South Carolina. No wonder South Carolina is also one of the only states where a state-wide Labor Party exists, as the workers increasingly understand the need to fight back politically.

Nikki HaleyThe state’s most anti-union politicians, currently led by Governor Nikki Haley, have been successful over the years in their fight against organized labor, at the expense of the region’s workers and increasingly to the benefit of large corporations like Boeing.

So Boeing cynically makes the case that unions are against providing jobs to workers in South Carolina. Unfortunately, this resonated with a segment of Boeing’s new workforce in the Charleston area in mid-2009, when 280 workers chose to leave the IAM after only a year of representation.

Their reasoning was apparently due to their belief that the ongoing labor disputes in Everett were over the union’s attempt to block “job creation” in South Carolina. An Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times has also peddled this argument: “Give the corporation a break! Organized labor should be ashamed for fighting this fight… especially during a recession!”

However, it is the writer of this article who should be ashamed for ignoring the facts of the case against Boeing. This is a classic case of “divide and conquer,” of pitting one group of workers against another, while the real culprit
—Boeing—gets off scot-free. Workers should not fall into the protectionist, nationalist trap being laid by the bosses, and unfortunately, also being pushed by some union leaders.

Let’s be clear: IAM 751 is not fighting against creating jobs in South Carolina. The IAM is fighting against Boeing’s attempts to unfairly eliminate union jobs, and for the right of all U.S. workers to a good job. However, it must be said that the union leadership has not been clear enough on this point. Instead of relying so heavily on courts, judges, and lawyers to win its case, it should boldly take its case to the broader labor movement and the general public. Its central message should be that it is in favor of high-paying, unionized jobs in both Everett and Charleston, and everywhere else Boeing operates. It should demand that all non-union Boeing employees should be immediately brought into the union at union wages.

If it were true that Boeing actually cared about job creation in the U.S., then the corporation would invest its millions in profits into manufacturing more of its products in the U.S. If this happened, then jobs could be added not only in South Carolina and Washington, but in other places where Boeing operates throughout the country as well.

Instead, Boeing has decided to take an approach that does a better job at lining the pockets of company executives and shareholders. For example, it has had most of its newest plane, the Dreamliner 787, cheaply manufactured by subcontractors in other parts of the world. However, this outsourcing strategy has now backfired, as some parts made by subcontractors—always on the lookout to cut corners to maximize profits—have failed quality inspections or suffered other setbacks.

In effect, Boeing is attempting to apply the same strategy within the U.S. by “outsourcing” to South Carolina in what amounts to a “race to the bottom” for how much a company has to pay in labor costs. Some might take a narrow view of the issue and argue that it is better for U.S. workers generally if these jobs stay in the U.S., rather than leave the country altogether. But the question remains: what kinds of jobs are being destroyed and what kinds of jobs are being created?

And if the rights of workers are diminished by a court ruling which is favorable for Boeing and hampers the NLRB’s already restricted capacity to defend the workers’ right to organize, then the labor movement as a whole will be weakened. David Campbell, lead counsel for IAM in the case, summed up this point when he said “Boeing is launching a direct assault on every American’s right to join a union, to collectively bargain, and if necessary, to strike to gain a better life.”

This case matters for every worker in the United States because of what the outcome could mean for our ability to fight for good jobs going forward. Nonetheless, we should remember that even the most pro-worker ruling is only a partial victory as long as the real political and economic power remains in the hands of the capitalist class. In the final analysis, only militant, class-independent political and workplace action can ensure our class is truly able to protect itself. This should be the main lesson of this struggle.

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