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.
As for the accusations of activism, Solomon said he merely believes in the board's mission to protect workers and in the concept of collective bargaining.
"The scale is always tipped -- the employer has the economic power," Solomon said. "I believe in collective bargaining. I believe that the preamble of the National Labor Relations Act is as true today as when it was written in 1935. Collective bargaining is a way to level the playing field and to promote a middle class in this society. Income inequality isn't a good thing for workers and it isn't a good thing for society. There is nobody that benefits from this."
Solomon said there were plenty of rewarding cases that he worked on, all of them overshadowed by the Boeing controversy. His office made a point of expediting cases in which employers have fired workers in order to scuttle burgeoning union campaigns. According to Solomon, the initiative led to more than 2,000 work reinstatement offers from employers and millions of dollars in back pay.
Solomon also took a lead role in outlining what workers can and cannot be punished for saying in the new world of social media. Until he took up certain cases and established legal guidelines, labor law offered little clarity on what would be considered protected speech when employees criticize their companies on Facebook and Twitter. The guidance made the board's work relevant to the many people who wrongly believe the agency only has a say in matters between employers and labor unions.
And, of course, there were the thousands of labor cases that never made any news.
"I saw a case where the workers were not paid any minimum wage. They survived on tips," Solomon said. "And the employer sort of defended itself by saying he allowed the employee to live in the company bathroom. That's a deplorable situation. There are situations like that around the country, and workers are entitled to be treated better than that."
Those who wanted the labor board defunded or shut down nearly got their wish. With Senate Republicans blocking Obama's nominations, and one board member's term set to expire, the labor board nearly lost its quorum last summer, which would have left it unable to do business. As the government shutdown loomed, Democrats and Republicans hashed out a deal that gave the agency its first fully confirmed board in a decade. Solomon stepped aside for his replacement, Richard Griffin, who was confirmed by the Senate in October.
Solomon is still working as a lawyer at the board, in the lower profile role that he prefers. He said he never cared to have the spotlight, although he's much more comfortable under its glare than he used to be. For that, he credited the Republicans in Congress who called him to the special hearing in South Carolina.
"Literally, since that day, there isn't an audience that I won't speak in front of. I don't get nervous, and I don't speak from a prepared text," Solomon said. "It was a life-altering experience for me."