On June 17, Lafe Solomon, chief acting legal counsel for the National Labor Relations Board, was summoned to North Charleston under the threat of a subpoena. The reason: To sit before a U.S. House panel and be attacked by mob of angry Republicans, including three Congressmen from South Carolina and the state's high-profile governor and possible 2012 GOP VP candidate, Nikki Haley.
Solomon is suing airline manufacturer Boeing for what the NLRB perceives to be an illegal retaliatory act against the air giant's unionized workforce in Washington State. The complaint came in April and is based on the company's choice to build its 787 Dreamliner in South Carolina, a right-to-work state.
"We believe the evidence will show that Boeing retaliated against its employees," Solomon said at the hearing at Charleston County Council chambers. He was seated at a long table before members of the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. "The decision to build a second line in South Carolina was in retaliation for the employees' right to strike."
Before Boeing announced that it was setting up a Dreamliner plant in North Charleston, the company had pursued plans to create a second one in Everett, Wash. But Boeing decided against that idea after the unionized workforce there refused an agreement that would have barred them from striking for a decade. Boeing's original Dreamliner plant is still operating, and it looks as though Boeing won't stop its operations in the Evergreen State.
Since the announcement of the North Charleston plant, Boeing has actually created some 2,000 jobs back on the Pacific coast. And at the hearing, Solomon testified that he could not name one worker in Washington who had lost his or her job as a result of the company's move to South Carolina.
Before the hearing began, Upstate GOP Congressman Trey Gowdy said he was looking at the issue in 3-D. There was a legal dimension, a practical dimension, and a political one, he said. To anyone present at the hearing, it should have been obvious the third dimension took center stage.
No legislative recommendations are likely to come out of the hearing, and Iowa Democrat Bruce Braley likened it to political theater. He even said that summoning Solomon to discuss the case was not that different than tampering with jurors or witnesses during a trial; after all, the NLRB suit is currently working its way through the legal system. Other Democrats on the committee, including Ohio U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Washington, D.C.'s Eleanor Holmes Norton, and New York's Carolyn Maloney, suggested that the hearing might be interfering with the judicial process. For his part, Kucinich said he that he believed there was evidence to suggest Boeing retaliated against its union workforce, as Solomon's suit alleges. The Ohio Democrat accused the company of pitting one state against another.
The Republicans present, however, took Solomon to task. For much of the hearing, committee chairman Darrell Issa, a California Republican, turned the gavel over to Gowdy so the former Upstate prosecutor could do the grilling, which he did in loud and aggressive bursts. He pounded the gavel and shouted at Solomon. When he wasn't shouting at Solomon, he shouted at Rep. Norton.
Midlands Congressman Joe Wilson referred to the NLRB lawsuit as an unprecedented expansion of big government and an "attack on jobs" and an "assault on Boeing." Gowdy called the NLRB a "sycophant" for to labor unions.
The GOP's most celebrated incoming freshman, U.S. Rep. Tim Scott, also had harsh words about the suit. "This entire process is baseless," Scott said. "This is such a baseless complaint." Scott painted the NLRB's lawsuit as a way for President Barack Obama to galvanize his big labor supporters during an election year, during which he'll be looking for campaign contributions.
But it was Gowdy's bombastic performance that was enough to make Johns Island roofing contractor K.C. Lombard sing his praises. "I'm very proud of Trey Gowdy and what he's doing," Lombard said during a break in the four-hour hearing. "It's union harassment of South Carolina for being a right-to-work, non-union state. They want it all back in Washington under union control, and it's all bought and paid for. Lafe [Solomon] and the Obama administration are bought and paid for by unions. I mean, that's how they got in office. That's a no-brainer there."
Also present at the hearing were Gov. Nikki Haley and Attorney General Alan Wilson, both Republicans. The pair took turns tag-teaming the committee and lobbing rhetorical hand grenades at the NLRB.
"As governor, my job is to do whatever I can to create jobs," Haley said during her testimony. "I never thought that the president and his appointees at the National Labor Relations Board would be one of the biggest opponents that we would have."
Haley, who nearly cost the state 1,200 jobs when she did nothing to prevent Amazon from abandoning an as-yet-to-be-completed distribution center in the governor's hometown, added, "It is an attack on our employers ... it's an attack on states that work hard to make sure that we keep the cost of doing business low [and] that we continue to have a pro-business environment."
Alan Wilson called the NLRB complaint the "shot heard 'round the business world" and at one point slipped — or at least he said he slipped — and used the phrase "mob bosses" instead of "union bosses."
And as the four-hour hearing came to a close, the idea that the entire event might have been one long day of political theater began to take hold.
"The bizarre thing is we're the oversight committee. We don't legislate," said Iowa's Braley as he gathered his things and headed for the door. "Our job is to do our responsibility under the Constitution to oversee the federal agencies and make sure they're doing what they're supposed to. So, if this had been in front of the Education and Workforce Committee ... then there may have been some recommendations for legislative action to amend the National Labor Relations Act to address some of these concerns. Well, you didn't hear anybody talk about that today."
Asked by a reporter if he thought the hearing was just political theater, Braley said that was certainly a big part of it. He added, "And if you listened to what was said I think you got a big sense of that."