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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

April 21, 2011 at 9:40 AM

NLRB ruling: A speed bump on the race to the bottom

Excuse me for not getting hysterical over the National Labor Relations Board ruling that Boeing violated federal labor law by building a second 787 line at a non-union plant in South Carolina to retaliate against union workers here for past strikes.

Boeing was hardly subtle in its demand for “labor peace” here as it claimed to be assessing whether to build the new assembly in the Puget Sound region or at the newly acquired factory in North Charleston. I spent years as a manager of unionized workers; one of the first things I was taught was how to manage within labor law. It wasn’t hard, usually involving being fair and showing common sense. After decades of labor boards that tilted heavily toward big business, maybe this isn’t standard procedure any more. If the ruling were to be upheld, which it won’t, it would be another management bungle to add to the long list associated with the Dreamliner. It would be interesting to see an accounting of management mistakes vs. the cost of strikes. Oh, well…

As much as the union-haters hate it, the right to strike is “a fundamental right guaranteed by the National Labor Relations Act,” as NLRB Acting General Counsel Lafe Solomon said. Whether it would ever be smart for Boeing’s unions to use it again is another issue. Another strike in our lifetimes, and the McBoeing management in Chicago would do everything it could to shut down jets in Jet City.

States and countries want what we have, and companies are quite mercenary about playing them off against each other. That would tempt me to say: Therefore, another strike is not going to happen, and the victorious, symbolically at least, International Association of Machinists will have to find ways to look after its members without the blunt weapon of the walkout. In a few years, the NLRB will swing back to the Republicans and the courts will probably have reversed the decision in the meantime.

But, who knows? Unions, like companies, can make mistakes. Unlike companies, they are victims of the race to the bottom in wages and demand for docile workers. Unlike companies, they are, when run properly, answerable to the votes of their members. In the meantime, Boeing has its “labor peace” and is adding workers here. That makes sense considering that Washington state has America’s most highly skilled aerospace cluster, and yes, much of it unionized. You get what you pay for.

Today’s Econ Haiku:

Chinese inflation

What goes up might also down

Helicopter Ben

Comments | More in Aerospace/Boeing, Labor unions

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