The GOP's war on the NLRB isn't just about airplanes and unions.
There's a fine line between congressional oversight and congressional overreach, but I think it's safe to say that Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has well and truly crossed it. His crusade against the National Labor Relations Board —a crusade that puts basic tenets of due process, judicial independence, and workers' rights at risk—makes sense only if you are a subscriber to the nihilist worldview that virtually all government agencies are corrupt, socialist minions of Obama.
Certainly, I can appreciate the charms of such a tidy and unifying theory of national government. But in this case, as well as in most others, it's a recipe for disaster for real Americans with real lives to think about.
Many liberals have not yet fully tuned in to the NLRB fight, but it's a critically important marker for where the GOP House is headed. And ultimately, it differs only in kind, but not degree, from the U.S. attorneys scandal of 2006—the one where officials in the White House and Justice Department conspired to fire a clutch of U.S. attorneys who weren't finding evidence of the sorts of crimes the Bush White House wanted to see prosecuted. The Republican war on the NLRB is really no different. Whether you like the agency or hate it, swoon for organized labor or dream only of crushing it, is immaterial. We don't close down entire government agencies by congressional subpoena, and we don't block administrative judges from doing their jobs because we don't feel like waiting around for the legal process to be completed.
An independent federal agency tasked by statute with adjudicating private-sector labor disputes isn't some trivial government trinket. Created by the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, the NLRB exists to protect the rights of workers through an elaborate statutory mechanism that has been hobbled by extreme ideology for years. But this incarnation of the fight is new. In the middle of a trial over Boeing's decision to relocate facilities from Washington state to South Carolina, Rep. Issa has seemingly decided to bring the entire agency down. As Harold Meyerson argued this winter, the fight over the continued existence of the NLRB may not be quite as sexy as Scott Walker's union-busting activities in Wisconsin, but it's just as consequential. As Meyerson explained, this project has less to do with jobs for South Carolina than with running off Democratic voters: "Unions remain the most effective part of the Democratic coalition in turning out minority voters come election time and in getting working-class whites to vote Democratic. As such, they are the linchpin of progressive change in America. Taking them off the political map isn't about budgets. It's about removing a check on right-wing and business power in America."
The complaint filed by the NLRB contends that Boeing moved some of its operations from union-friendly Washington to "right to work" South Carolina. (In right-to-work states, workers cannot be required as a condition of employment to pay dues or fees to a union, even though the union provides services to all the workers in the form of negotiating and administering a collective-bargaining agreement.) The claim here was that operations were moved to retaliate for strikes by Washington state workers. It's a tough claim to prove, but it's not an outlandish one by any means. As the NLRB points out here, there is ample precedent for the argument that threatening to move facilities because of strikes is illegal under the National Labor Relations Act. And certainly the NLRB might reasonably have taken a Boeing executive at his word when he told the Seattle Times (on video!) that this was precisely what motivated the relocation.
Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.
Photograph of Darrell Issa courtesy the Office of Congressman Darrell Issa.