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Labor experts: U.S. House Oversight Committee action veering toward the political

Two Iowa labor experts — one a former labor attorney with more than 25 years experience and the other a communications professor who has extensively studied labor and the media — agree that it is difficult to view actions taken by the chairman of the U.S. House Oversight Committee in relation to an ongoing National Labor Relations Board case as anything other than politically motivated.

Their comments echo a July 29 letter sent by 34 law professors to Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), urging him not to issue a subpoena to compel the disclosure of all documents relating to the NLRB’s investigation of Boeing’s possible discrimination against organized workers in Washington state.

… As national legal and labor policy experts, we are gravely concerned by the undue pressure that [your earlier] letter, and its threats to compel disclosure of privileged documents, have placed on an independent law enforcement agency. We are particularly concerned because the documents at issue related to a case currently being tried before an Administrative Law Judge in Seattle, Washington. We therefore strongly urge the Committee to let this case proceeded according to the policies established in the National Labor Relations Act without further interference. …

U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the influential Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, a member of the House Oversight Committee, have previously described actions being undertaken by Issa and the Republican majority as “shameful” and “unprecedented.”

Christopher R. Martin, University of Northern Iowa professor and interim Department of Communication Studies head, said “unprecedented” was a fair assessment.

Image has not been found. URL: http://media.iowaindependent.com/christopher_r_martin_125.jpg Christopher R. Martin

“Rep. Issa is using his chairmanship on Oversight and Government Reform to unnecessarily meddle in a National Labor Relations Board case concerning Boeing,” Martin told The Iowa Independent. “The writers of the letter in protest of Issa’s actions currently note that his committee in the past has leaked documents in the media to undermine the government’s work.”

As The Iowa Independent previously reported, the case was launched against Boeing in April, following union allegations in 2010 that the company was violating federal labor law by retaliating against organized workers in Washington state for past strikes. Boeing has denied the allegations, stating that the new plant it has constructed in South Carolina was completed for numerous market reasons and not because of South Carolina’s right-to-work law that would deter unionization.

“It is important to note that there are no allegations or evidence of wrongdoing in the NLRB’s action,” Martin said. “It is simply that Issa doesn’t like that the NLRB is investigating Boeing’s decision to move jobs from unionized plants in Washington state to a non-unionized plant in South Carolina.”

Matthew Glasson, who is currently a labor educator at the University of Iowa Labor Center and who previously practiced labor law in Cedar Rapids, said he can remember only three or four times in the past that Congress took interest in an NLRB case after it had gone through adjudication.

“I don’t recall a single time when Congress has become involved in the investigation phase of an NLRB case,” he told The Iowa Independent by phone Tuesday.

The NLRB is an independent federal agency that protects the rights of private sector employees to join together, with or without a union, to improve their wages and working conditions. Currently, the NLRB is led by Lafe Solomon, acting general counsel. The Board is comprised of five members, which are appointed by the President to five-year terms, pending Senate confirmation. An organizational chart on the agency’s website provides a more detailed view of leadership and responsibilities.

“Normally the NLRB’s initial determination [on whether or not a complaint has the merits to move forward] is pretty un-newsworthy,” said Glasson. “They look at a lot of cases and conclude that many don’t have enough evidence to move forward and conclude that others do, and those decisions very rarely make news at all.

“I don’t know of any case in which Congress has stepped in at this level and scrutinized this type of an investigation. It is usually after a case has been tried and there is a determination that the labor law has or has not been violated that it makes some news and, even then, Congress very rarely reviews the merits of an NLRB decision.”

Just like any investigative body, Glasson said, the NLRB doesn’t want to disclose the information it has gathered during the course of the investigation. Similar to a police investigation, he said, such disclosures make it more difficult to mount a successful prosecution and can also hinder future witnesses to wrongdoing or sources from coming forward. Such sources may be fearful that their statements or information would be disclosed early on and in a politicized manner.

“In my opinion, this just looks like harassment of the agency,” he added. “What Congress mostly does is appropriate money for the NLRB to carry out its tasks, and its hard to see how this information could help them make a legitimate determination of how much funding the NLRB needs, unless it is being done on a political basis.”

Martin describes Issa’s labeling of the NLRB case against Boeing as “an attack on job creation” as inaccurate.

“There are no extra jobs being created here,” he said. “It’s an investigation of whether or not Boeing is in violation of labor law in moving these jobs. This is an important question to address. Issa, who previously expressed his desire to eliminate the NLRB, is misusing his role as chair of the Oversight Committee to undermine the agency that protects American workers.”

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