NLRB Once Again Caught In The Middle Of A Thorny Boeing-Machinists Dispute

Jan 21, 2014

The National Labor Relations Board once again is being called into the middle of a thorny dispute between machinists and the Boeing Company. Could the agency find itself in as much political hot water this time as three years ago?

2011 is the year the NLRB exploded onto the national consciousness, all because the agency’s general counsel filed a complaint against Boeing over its decision to build a Dreamliner plant in South Carolina. That drew heated responses from many political conservatives.

"Mr. Speaker, this action by the NLRB is unconstitutional and illegal," Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., said in a floor speech. "I call on my colleagues in the Education and Workforce Committee to hold hearings into this bureaucratic atrocity."

The NLRB’s top lawyer argued the company illegally built the plant in South Carolina in retaliation for prior strikes in Washington state. That resulted in congressional hearings and threats to defund the agency.

The NLRB dropped its complaint when Boeing and the machinists reached a deal over the 737MAX. But now machinists have filed more than a dozen charges with the NLRB against the company. They say Boeing violated labor law by threatening to build the 777X out of state if they didn’t pass the recent contract offer.

Seattle University law professor Charlotte Garden says even if the NLRB files a complaint this time, she doubts it will generate the same kind of controversy.

"Yeah, I mean, it’s the same employer and the same union, but I don’t know that it’s got the same potential to be so politically explosive," she said. 

Garden says that’s because there are no other states involved.


Still, machinists, Boeing — it’s got to bring up some kind of bad flashbacks for the agency.

Jeffrey Hirsch used to be a lawyer at the NLRB and is now associate dean at the University of North Carolina Law School. He says the agency is supposed to stay free of politics, but it’s hard for NLRB employees not to notice when they’re caught in the crosshairs.

"Certainly they’re going to be cognizant, but on the other hand, the NLRB is not going to shy away from something just because they might catch political heat," Hirsch said. 

It could take several months for the agency to investigate the charges. Boeing says it followed all labor laws during negotiations and fully respected the rights of employees.