Labor board plays fast, loose in Boeing case

Michael Luttig, Boeing’s executive vice president and general counsel, happens to be a former federal judge who was on the White House short list for a Supreme Court appointment under President George W. Bush, so it’s difficult to dismiss him as merely a self-interested corporate pleader.

But Luttig’s recent letter to National Labor Relations Board acting general counsel Lafe Solomon accusing the agency of mischaracterizing and misquoting decisions by Boeing and statements by the firm’s top executives raises a number of especially disturbing questions.

“A number of these statements, which are critical to your case against Boeing, fundamentally misquote or mischaracterize statements by Boeing executives and actions taken by the company,” Luttig wrote in the letter. “You have a responsibility to correct these misquotations and mischaracterizations, for the public record and also for purposes of the complaint you have filed.

“Through these misquotations and mischaracterizations, you have done a grave disservice to the Boeing Company, its executives and shareholders, and to the 160,000 Boeing employees worldwide. And, of course, you have filed a complaint based upon these misstatements that cannot be credibly maintained under law.”

To cite just three errors of fact described in Luttig’s letter: Boeing did not, as alleged by the NLRB, “transfer” any existing work being done by unionized employees in Washington state to the new plant in South Carolina; the board complaint misquoted Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Jim Albaugh as saying the prospect of “future strikes” was a prime reason for the move to South Carolina; and the NLRB can’t quote any Boeing executive saying the South Carolina decision intended to “punish” the company’s unionized employees because none made such a statement, according to Luttig.

One such mistake in an official complaint is perhaps understandable and could be corrected by the filing agency in the normal process. However, the presence of three such serious errors of fact, and on the issue at the heart of the board’s complaint, is inexcusable. Either the NLRB research and preparation for the complaint was so shoddy that it never should have been submitted in the first place, or the explanation for the errors has more to do with intention than competence.

Luttig pointed to a fourth problem with the NLRB complaint that personally involves Solomon. According to Luttig, Solomon had previously assured Boeing executives “that [he] did not believe this was a matter in which the NLRB should be involved and that [he] would take no action on the matter if Boeing agreed that it would not lay off any of the 787 employees in Puget Sound during the duration of its collective bargaining agreement.”

Since Boeing has not laid off employees covered by the current collective bargaining agreement with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers at its Washington facility, the fact the NLRB filed its complaint anyway suggests Solomon was not dealing with the company in good faith.

Nancy Cleeland, an NLRB spokesman, declined to discuss specifics of the Luttig letter, only saying a June 14 hearing in Seattle before an administrative law judge was “the appropriate venue for the parties to address the merits of the complaint.”

The NLRB can avoid responding to Boeing for now, but at some point these issues must be addressed in detail. The appropriate venue would be a congressional hearing, with testimony given under oath.

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