At a hearing held this past week by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions, it was amusing to watch the Democratic majority be thoroughly outmatched by the minority Republicans on the committee. The minority managed to divert the subject of the hearing to the National Labor Relations Board and its ridiculous job-killing complaint against Boeing.
The chairman of the committee, Tom Harkin (D-IA), called the hearing to discuss “The Endangered Middle Class: Is the American Dream Slipping Out of Reach for American Families?” Harkin called perfectly predictable witnesses who stuck to the party line, like former Clinton administration official Robert Reich. Reich couldn’t understand why we didn’t raise “taxes on the rich” so all citizens could share in the gains of our economy. We are in the terrible position we are today, according to Reich, because we “deregulated and privatized” and “slashed public goods and investment.” With record debt, Reich believes the government is still not spending enough! Forgive him: his economics are stuck in 1937, looking up at the Commanding Heights.
Another witness, Heather Boushey, is a forgettable economist from the Center for American Progress who claimed the supposed “decline in our standard of living” is due to “the decline in union membership across our nation.” Her economics were stuck in 1956 — she spent most of her time attacking our “Wal-Mart” economy. Apparently having one of the most successful retailers in the world hurts the economy in her view. (Her testimony is hardly surprising, given her father is a retired Boeing union machinist in Washington state.)
A final witness was a union automaton from the AFL-CIO. Naturally this third witness agreed with the previous Wal-Mart antagonist: middle class problems are caused by the decline in union membership resulting from the “intense and protracted anti-union campaigns” of employers. She was stuck in 1917.
Harkin obviously wanted the hearing to be a forum for bloviating in favor of labor unions, the largest campaign contributors to Democrats. Additionally, no Senate hearing would be complete without the usual tactic of blaming George Bush and evil corporate America for a variety of economic ills, and this hearing didn’t disappoint.
But Senator Mike Enzi outfoxed Harkin. He called — as his sole witness — Michael Luttig, general counsel for the Boeing Company and former justice of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Luttig was there to talk about the outrageous complaint filed by the National Labor Relations Board against Boeing for opening up a second assembly line for the 787 Dreamliner aircraft in right-to-work South Carolina instead of closed shop Washington state. Like so many large manufacturers, such as Mercedes, BMW, Toyota, and Michelin, companies are realizing the American South provides a highly skilled workforce without the labor boss skim. Why do you think the rust belt is the rust belt?
Luttig emphasized that a union strike in 2008 in Washington shut down production of the 787, costing Boeing more than a billion dollars and “damaging Boeing’s reputation for reliability with its airline customers, suppliers, and investors.” Boeing took into account many different factors in making a major assembly investment decision, and the recurring strikes in Washington was just one of them.
This action by the pro-union NLRB is an abuse of the applicable law and precedent, and seems to be a political move made to placate the unions that will be crucial to the election efforts of Democrats next year, including President Obama. It is also an attack on right-to-work states like South Carolina.
The NLRB action has raised the ire of everyone from the governor and Representative Joe Wilson, to Senators Jim DeMint and Lamar Alexander. Luttig’s testimony made the NLRB the focus of the hearing, something that would otherwise not have happened because Harkin would never have called a hearing to specifically discuss this issue.
Harkin was clearly annoyed at the turn that the hearing took. He muttered about his coal mining father and the unfair attacks on unions and the NLRB. But the political danger of the NLRB action was demonstrated by Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), who given his background in suing corporations, is not generally seen as “pro-business.”
Blumenthal went out of his way to be nice to Luttig and Boeing, the biggest American export company with $29 billion in overseas sales in 2009. That might also be due to the fact that Boeing suppliers spend more than a billion dollars in Connecticut.
Al Franken made a late appearance and demonstrated, once again, why Saturday Night Live suits him better than the United States Senate. Franken got angry and said it is untrue that anyone is ever forced to join a union. He obviously never worked in the produce section at Shop ‘n Save in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In a closed-shop state like Pennsylvania, the laws require employees to be members of a union if the employer is unionized. Enzi quipped, in response to Franken’s error, that you wouldn’t have to join a union unless “you wanted a job.”
While labor bosses like what the NLRB is doing, Democrats are starting to realize that this attack on Boeing and the thousands of high-paying jobs it is creating is a political handicap that may dog them all the way to November 2012. Most Americans view the opening of additional assembly lines as a good thing in this economy. As Jennifer Rubin has blogged at the Washington Post, the NLRB has handed the Republicans a potent issue. If the NLRB persists with this attack on one of the nation’s major employers, the costs will not just be economic, but political as well.