Lafe Solomon, acting general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, speaks during an interview in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, May 25, 2011. The NLRB said in an April 20 complaint that Boeing Co. built a nonunion assembly plant for its new 787 Dreamliner in North Charleston, South Carolina, in retaliation for work stoppages by unions at its Seattle-area production hub. Photographer: Sonja Y. Foster/Bloomberg via Getty Images | Bloomberg via Getty Images
WASHINGTON — In August 2011, Lafe Solomon received one of the least desirable overtures in modern Washington: a subpoena from Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House oversight committee. Solomon was the top lawyer at the National Labor Relations Board at the time, and he’d infuriated Republicans with a complaint he pursued against a particularly powerful manufacturer and political donor, the Boeing Co.
As Solomon noted, it was the first time in 70 years that Congress had subpoenaed the general counsel of the labor board, an independent agency that enforces labor law on unions and employers. Solomon had read the congressional report from the last time it had happened, way back in 1940, when anti-union conservatives wanted to destroy the then-young agency and roll back New Deal labor reforms.
“The parallels are striking to me,” Solomon said in a recent interview at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, reflecting on his turbulent term as general counsel, which ended last summer. “If you read the committee report from 1940, and the report from the Issa committee, they’re really quite similar in rhetoric.”
In Solomon’s more than three years as the NLRB’s quasi-prosecutor, he oversaw thousands of complaints that were issued against businesses and unions. But it was his move on Boeing that most enraged conservatives. Solomon accused the manufacturer of breaking labor law by trying to establish a production line for its 787 Dreamliner in South Carolina. Based in part on statements by a Boeing executive, he said the move was retaliation against the company’s unionized workers in Washington state for having gone on strike in the past.
The complaint spurred congressional hearings, inspired Republicans to try to defund and shut down the labor board, and, less directly, helped prompt a showdown in a divided Senate over the filibuster. Solomon was summoned for a flogging by House Republicans at a special field hearing in South Carolina, and he and the NLRB at large were blasted by the likes of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) as out-of-control job killers. (The American Bar Association disagreed, eventually naming Solomon labor attorney of the year.) Solomon watched as his work became a campaign issue in the presidential election.
“I certainly couldn’t have anticipated any of it,” Solomon said, noting that the Boeing charge originally came out of a regional office, before he assumed the general counsel post. “But I just tried to keep my head down and do the job and keep morale as high as we could facing these uncertainties.”
A career employee at the labor board for more than three decades, Solomon said he never coveted the agency’s prosecutorial post. He was asked to do it, he said, and he assumed he would serve merely as a placeholder until President Barack Obama nominated someone else for a complete term. But three months turned into three years, even though Solomon never even got a vote in the Senate on his nomination. For all his time, he was technically “acting” general counsel.
Solomon said he never really expected confirmation. He had rankled the business lobby and many conservatives even before the Boeing blowup, when he threatened to sue four states over their constitutional amendments guaranteeing secret-ballot union elections. Supported by businesses, the amendments were an attempt to preempt the Employee Free Choice Act, proposed federal legislation that would generally make it easier for workers to unionize. In the eyes of his critics, the move cemented Solomon as a union-favoring activist.
One of the less credible claims was that Solomon was doing the bidding of Obama. Politically speaking, the Boeing complaint and other purportedly pro-union actions by the labor board brought the White House little more than grief. Solomon insisted he never had any contact with the White House, noting that the NLRB is an independent agency. “I am sure that there were certainly people in the White House that would have preferred me not issuing the Boeing complaint,” he said dryly.
The Boeing case was eventually settled short of a board decision, as most such cases are.