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Mike Elk: In a groundbreaking decision, the General Council of the NLRB rules Boeing can’t move plant to a ‘right to work’ state to punish the union

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. South Carolina government: Nikki Haley says this goes against everything we know our economy to be. South Carolina representative Jim DeMint says it’s thuggery, something you’d expect a Third World country to do, not America. What are they talking about? They’re talking about a recommendation by the general council of the Labor Relation Board that Boeing should not move its production line from Washington State to South Carolina to avoid dealing with its union. Astounding. Now joining us to talk about the Labor Relations Board and Boeing is Mike Elk. Mike’s a contributing editor to In These Times. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: Alright. So explain the facts of what happened, and then we’ll get into what it all means.

ELK: So, in 2007, Boeing announced that they were going to add several production lines to a facility in Puget Sound, Washington, a big Boeing facility there that’s heavily unionized. Then, in 2008, those workers there went out on a 58-day strike. So, in 2009, the company decided–Boeing–that they were going to move the work from Puget Sound, Washington, to a non-union facility in South Carolina, in Charleston, South Carolina. Now, talking to The Seattle Times, the CEO of Boeing–one of the chief executives, not the CEO, said that the reason they did it was because the workers went out on strike and they didn’t want to have to deal with the union. Now, the National Labor Relationship Board has ruled, has issued basically the equivalent of an indictment, saying that this is illegal, a corporation cannot do this, this is a violation of the National Labor Relations Act. By threatening somebody’s ability to strike, by doing retaliatory things like moving a factory if workers strike, you are limiting their ability to collectively bargain.

JAY: Clearly, thuggery to tell them they can’t. So what is the law on this? I mean, according to the free enterprise system, factories should be able to go wherever they want. What exactly is the legal basis for the Labor Relations Board saying they can’t do this?

ELK: Well, in the 1960s there was a case, Gissel Packing, a Supreme Court case, where the Supreme Court ruled that there were certain types of speech that employers could not do, that an employer does not have a relationship like you and I, two people might have a relationship, that employers have the ability to threaten workers, they have the power of extortion, so there are certain things a corporation can’t do. And there’s been other legal precedents, cases where companies have threatened to move facilities that the Supreme Court has ruled that was illegal. So now, finally, you’re seeing a company order–you know, the National Labor Relations Board order the company to move the work back to the union facility. And this is really groundbreaking. And it’s a tough enforcement of the National Labor Relations Act.

JAY: Well, if it holds up, the precedent is enormous. It, for example, could mean to a factory that says or a plant that says, we’re going to move to avoid unionization, they could say no. You had a recent situation in Wisconsin where Harley Davidson and Kohler plumbing and Mercury Marine said, if you don’t give us a better two-tier contract, we’re moving. I mean, in theory, the Labor Relations Board decision here could transform labor relations as we know it.

ELK: Oh, without a doubt. In half of all union organizing drives, the boss threatens to move a factory if the workers unionize. So this is a common tactic. And if you’re able to say to a company, hey, you can’t threaten your union workers by taking away their jobs, that makes it a much more level playing field for unions to actually negotiate. Now, the right wing is up in arms about this because of that, and the left hasn’t quite seemed to rally yet behind the National Labor Relations Board.

JAY: Now, the Republicans are threatening to defund the Labor Relations Board now because of this. How would that work?

ELK: Well, it’s not exactly clear how it works. It’s more of a threat. But Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has put in a bill that would defund this one complaint. This is sort of like–you know, the Labor Relations Board is a quasi-judicial body. It has judges, it has prosecutors. This is like threatening to defund the Supreme Court ’cause you didn’t like a Supreme Court case.

JAY: And it sounds like you’re threatening to defund a specific case before the Supreme Court. Is that what you’re suggesting? They’re talking about defunding this one thing, not [crosstalk]

ELK: Yeah, defunding their ability–they’re going to try to put some rider in some bill saying that they can’t pursue this case, that they can’t spend their resources pursuing this case [crosstalk]

JAY: Now, the person in the Labor Relations Board that did all this, a guy named Lafe Solomon, who’s their general counsel, how did he get there? And the Republicans are targeting him particularly. So what is his story? And how–what seems, all of a sudden, gives him the backbone to do this?

ELK: Well, I profiled Lafe Solomon on several occasions. He’s the acting general counsel of the NLRB. This is sort of like being the DA or the Matlock of labor relations for the country. He’s a career NLRB employee. He’s been there for over 35 years. He’s worked for both Republican and Democratic councilors. He’s been appointed by Republican presidents and appointed by Democratic presidents. He’s been there forever. He’s a pretty non-controversial pick, and he’s not an ideologue. I mean, this is quite simply you can’t have labor relations in this country, you can’t have collective bargaining, if an employer can threaten to take away your jobs. And he’s simply trying to do a good job enforcing the law. And under his vigor since he’s been nominated, he’s really done an excellent job. He’s tripled the number of cases that are pushed into federal court so that workers can return to the job if they’re fired during an organizing campaign. He’s done a number of things to try to stop union busting.

JAY: That’s a very big deal, because mostly the labor movements been very critical of the National Labor Relations Board. You hear cases that have taken years, where someone is fired because they’re organizing an union, and three, four, or five years later the case gets before the National Labor–the NLRB. So it becomes very ineffective for ever enforcing something that helps workers, where in fact it does enforce legislation that helps employers. This seems like quite a break with that history.

ELK: It’s quite a break. And I think it’s a case by–you know, the National Labor Relations Board is looking at [incompr.] realizing, and realizing that simply there’s not going to be labor unions in this country unless we vigorously enforce labor law. And I don’t think this was a political action. It’s–the National Labor Relations Board has always been somewhat immune from political tones. I mean, they–you know, they’re a quasi-judicial body.

JAY: Now, Solomon’s the general counsel. But how about the rest of the board and the chair of the board? Are they backing him on this?

ELK: Well, so, basically what Solomon has done is like a DA indicting a criminal–the criminal in this case is Boeing. He has indicted a criminal. And now the complaint is going to move to a court in Seattle, a National Labor Relations court, before a judge there in Seattle on June 12. And then after that there’ll probably be appeals. It’ll probably go all the way up to the National Labor Relations Board. It might go into court, depending upon if they appeal it on certain grounds. It’s unclear. But this is something you’re going to be hearing about for a long time. And if it passes, if Boeing is forced to move that work back, this is a game changer.

JAY: Now, the Labor Relations Board has its own judicial process. We’re not sure how long that’s going to take. This next judge, if he sides with the general counsel, it will move its way through the process. What happens in the meantime? Is Boeing just carry on in South Carolina? Or is there any power in the interim to say, no, you can’t do this until this decision’s made?

ELK: There’s not really much power. I mean, they’re trying to force Boeing into settling, into making a settlement with the union. So that’s the real threat there. And–.

JAY: ‘Cause there could be–in theory, if Boeing loses this case, eventually there could be some compensation due to the union or something, I would suppose.

ELK: Perhaps. Perhaps there could be compensation due. So, you know, in the interim, there’s nothing the workers can really do in this situation. And, I mean, what the workers are trying to do is organize that plant in South Carolina, make it a union plant. And Nikki Haley, who’s the governor of South Carolina, has vowed to fight this tooth-and-nail. In fact, she hired a prominent union buster to be the secretary of labor, and she announced in a press release, I hired this person to be a partner in fighting this union drive in this factory. You know, this is, like, socialized union busting. This is almost completely unheard of. And she’s currently being sued for that. So I think the only thing they can do, really, is try to organize. And this is–it’s going to be a tough battle.

JAY: Well, it’s certainly a battle that you would think everyone had better follow, because the NLRB, National Labor Relations Board (I’m having trouble spitting that one out), has enormous power over what goes on in places of work across the country. Thanks for joining us.

ELK: Great to be on the show.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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A native of the East End of Pittsburgh, Mike Elk is a Sidney award winner and a lifetime member of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild.  As a pioneering leader in the digital media unionization movement, he has been profiled by NPR, The Washington Post, New York Magazine, Newsweek, and Pacific Standard.

As an investigative reporter, Mike Elk’s work has been featured everywhere from the front page fo The New York Times to being debated by Barbara Walters and Whoopi Goldberg on ABC’s The View. His work was credited by the Obama Administration for leading to an end of the use of the subminimum wage for the disabled workers and a massive pay raise for the domestic violence survivor advocates on 48 Army bases across the country. Speaking of his reporting covering the lockout of Honeywell uranium workers, Daily Show Co-Creator Lizz Winstead said “Mike Elk is the new John Wayne. I believe he is the real Matt Taibbi”.

At age 22, his first job was working as a field staffer for President Obama’s campaign in rural Western Pennsylvania. Afterward, he followed the President to Washington, D.C., where he heeded the President’s call to his young staffers to hold him accountable and became a labor reporter. He spent all eight years of the Obama Administration based out of Washington, D.C.  crisscrossing the country, visiting over 30 states, covering strikes, lockouts, and tragic workplace deaths.

He has worked as a workplace safety expert for MSNBC, as an investigative reporter for In These Times Magazine, and has also written for The New York Times, Washington Post, and Reuters. He is co-author of the book “We Are Wisconsin”.

At the age of 28, he rose to be the senior labor reporter on largest labor desk in the country when he co-founded POLITICO’s labor desk. After being illegally fired for union organizing at POLITICO, Mike used his NLRB settlement money to move to Chattanooga, Tennessee to found Payday Report

As the son of UE Director of Organization Gene Elk, he prefers to hide the fact that he attended a university as elite as Bucknell on a full scholarship. During college, he spent a year half in Brasil, where he covered the landless workers’ movement and the fallout of the drug war. He speaks Portuguese.

When Mike isn’t reporting on workers, he can be found listening to Sharon Jones, cooking salmon, and talking about the Civil War. He can be reached at or on twitter @MikeElk.