The airplane’s aft section arrived early Monday morning. That’s what they’d been waiting for at the final assembly plant in North Charleston, S.C. They already had the wings, the nose, the tail — all the other major sections of Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner. With the arrival of the aft, the 5,000 nonunion workers in the plant can finally begin to assemble their first aircraft — a plane three years behind schedule and critical to Boeing’s future.
he Dreamliner is important to America’s future, too. As companies have moved manufacturing offshore, Boeing has remained steadfast in maintaining a large manufacturing presence in America. It is America’s biggest exporter of manufactured products. Indeed, despite the delays, Boeing still has 827 Dreamliners on order, worth a staggering $162 billion.
Boeing’s aircraft assembly has long been done by its unionized labor force in Puget Sound, Wash. Most of the new Dreamliners will be built in Puget Sound as well. But with the plane so far behind schedule, Boeing decided to spend $750 million to open the South Carolina facility. Between the two plants, the company hopes to build 10 Dreamliners a month.
That’s the plan, at least. The Obama administration, however, has a different plan. In April, the National Labor Relations Board filed a complaint against Boeing, accusing it of opening the South Carolina plant to retaliate against the union, which has a history of striking at contract time. The N.L.R.B.’s proposed solution, believe it or not, is to move all the Dreamliner production back to Puget Sound, leaving those 5,000 workers in South Carolina twiddling their thumbs.
Seriously, when has a government agency ever tried to dictate where a company makes its products? I can’t ever remember it happening. Neither can Boeing, which is fighting the complaint. J. Michael Luttig, Boeing’s general counsel, has described the action as “unprecedented.” He has also said that it was a disservice to a country that is “in desperate need of economic growth and the concomitant job creation.” He’s right.
That’s also why I’ve become mildly obsessed with the Boeing affair. Nothing matters more right now than job creation. Last week, President Obama barnstormed the Midwest, promising a jobs package in September and blaming Republicans for blocking job-creationefforts. Republicans, of course, have blamed the administration, complaining that regulatory overkill is keeping companies from creating jobs.
They’re both right. Republicans won’t pass anything that might stimulate job growth because they are so ideologically opposed to federal spending. But the Democrats have blind spots, too. No, the Environmental Protection Agency shouldn’t be rolling back its rules, as the Republican presidential candidates seem to want. But a fair-minded person would have to acknowledge that the N.L.R.B.’s action is exactly the kind of overreach that should embarrass Democrats who claim to care about job creation. It’s paralyzing, is whatis what it is.
The law, to be sure, forbids a company from retaliating against a union. But the word “retaliation” suggests direct payback — a company shutting down a factory after a strike, for instance. Boeing did nothing like that. It not only hasn’t laid off a single worker in Washington State, it has added around 3,000 new ones. Seven out of every 10 Dreamliners will be assembled in Puget Sound.
Before expanding to South Carolina, Boeing asked the union for a moratorium on strikes — precisely because it needed to get the airplane into the hands of impatient customers. The union said it would agree only if Boeing promised never to manufacture anywhere but Puget Sound. Boeing refused — as any company would.
It is a mind-boggling stretch to describe Boeing’s strategy as “retaliation.” Companies have often moved to right-to-work states to avoid strikes; it is part of the calculus every big manufacturer makes. The South Carolina facility is a hedge against the possibility that Boeing’s union work force will shut down production of the Dreamliner. And it’s a perfectly legitimate hedge, at least under the rules that the business thought it was operating under.
That is what is so jarring about this case — and not just for Boeing. Without any warning, the rules have changed. Uncertainty has replaced certainty. Other companies have to start wondering what other rules could soon change. It becomes a reason to hold back on hiring.
When he was asked about the Boeing case earlier this summer, President Obama said that the N.L.R.B. is an independent agency and that his hands were tied. That may be true, though it’s worth pointing out that most of its top executives are his appointees. But when he gets back from vacation, he might do well looking at his own administration, instead of simply blaming the lack of jobs on the Republicans.
As for the Republicans, there are plenty of regulations that would actually help create jobs — but which they won’t pass because of their own ideological blinders. I’ll be writing about that after Labor Day.
credit: New York Times