Conservatives Use Union Case to Distract from Jobs Failure


The national debate over job creation has reached a new low in a labor dispute involving a Boeing airplane manufacturing plant in South Carolina — a debate that is playing out just as reports show conservative state policies have demonstrably failed to create jobs this year and have instead resulted in declining wages.

In April, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) filed suit against Boeing for locating the new plant in the Palmetto State in retaliation against its union workforce for legal work stoppages in the past. A central tenet of collective bargaining law is that employers may not take actions to punish workers for taking legal actions in a dispute, such as going on strike. The NLRB’s suit would require Boeing to remedy its illegal action by relocating production of its 787 Dreamliner passenger plane to Washington State, where Boeing’s employees are members of the International Association of Machinists union (IAM).

Complicating the matter is the fact that the South Carolina plant was completed earlier this year and hundreds of workers have already been hired. However, as NLRB has clarified, its order to Boeing only relates to manufacturing of the Dreamliner, and doesn’t prohibit the company from manufacturing other products there. Nevertheless, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and other conservatives are seizing upon the situation to slam the NLRB and collective bargaining as stifling job creation and economic development. The irony is, far from killing jobs, the NLRB’s action would guarantee that thousands of Boeing jobs stay in the United States, and that they remain jobs of high quality; the only question being where the jobs are located.

While it is difficult to prove anti-union intent behind most plant closing and relocation decisions, Boeing executives repeatedly stated their motivation to avoid the union in building the Dreamliner plant in South Carolina, including on a conference call with shareholders. It is rare for corporations to violate the law so flagrantly, since all is usually required is staying mum about anti-union motives and inserting platitudes about strategic advantages and cost-effectiveness.

Apart from exploiting the situation for partisan grandstanding, conservatives are genuinely upset about one thing: the failure of job-stealing to work in such a high-profile case. South Carolina was able to woo Boeing by marketing its staunchly anti-worker climate as a corporate advantage, which it uses to convince companies to move jobs away from states with stronger labor standards. The strategy is not generally successful, but with Boeing it proved persuasive. Not only is South Carolina a Right-to-Work state, it has no state minimum wage law and does not permit state and local government workers the right to collective bargaining, among many other basic labor standards. Governor Haley has been explicit about protecting the state’s anti-worker policies in her public statements:

“This is an absolute assault on a great corporate citizen and on South Carolina’s right-to-work status. We will continue to do everything we can to protect that status, and to stand with companies like Boeing who understand what it means to take care of their employees without the interference of a meddlesome, self-serving union. This bullying will not be tolerated in South Carolina.”

Of course, there is nothing in the NLRB’s case that challenges South Carolina law. The case purely involves the temerity of Boeing executives who felt they could defy the law in the broad light of day and get away with it. Governor Haley ought to be railing at them for blowing the gig, instead of at the NLRB for enforcing the law as they must, particularly under the circumstances.

The case is an unfortunate distraction from the real nature of the jobs crisis gripping the country. The “recovery” from the Great Recession is truly a tale of two cities: on the one hand, a bonanza for corporations, which have captured 88% of the rise in national income since the recession officially ended; but on the other hand, a downward spiral for actual people, for whom the so-called recovery has not only been jobless, but wageless as well. So concludes a May 2011 report from the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University. Beyond the fact that the pace of job creation has lagged that of every other post-recession period since the Great Depression, the real value of full-time workers’ earnings has actually declined since the recovery started.

The report’s findings corroborate that of another released earlier this year that pointed out a fundamental restructuring of the labor market toward lower-wage jobs and persistent economic insecurity. Analysts found that the high-wage jobs that were predominantly lost in the Recession are being replaced with low-wage jobs: during the recession, 23% of jobs lost were lower-wage and 40% were higher-wage; since the recession, 49% of jobs created are lower-wage and only 14% are higher-wage. In such a climate, ensuring that the thousands of jobs at Boeing’s Dreamliner plant are higher-wage jobs like those under the union contract would be a modest improvement — wherever they are located.

But so long as the debate is about shuffling jobs from one state to the next, it will be a downward slope not just for the 24 million unemployed and under-employed, but for all working families who will feel pressure to accept less and less economic security just to keep a roof over their heads. In that case, not even the Boeing case will provide a large enough fig leaf for conservatives to cover the real job-killer: conservatives’ demands for drastic cuts in spending regardless of the cost.

This article is part of PSN's email newsletter, The Stateside Dispatch.
View other items from this edition