In many ways, Boeing should be a boon to President Barack Obama. In a faltering economy, the aerospace titan opened a $750 million factory in South Carolina and hired thousands of workers to build the world’s most fuel-efficient commercial jet.
But instead, it’s become a drag on his job creation agenda and a boon for candidates seeking the GOP presidential nomination.
In a case that has become a cause célèbre among Republican lawmakers and 2012 hopefuls, the National Labor Relations Board has accused Boeing of opening its South Carolina shop in a “right-to-work” state to retaliate against union worker strikes at its main manufacturing base in the Seattle area. An Obama appointee is now asking a judge to order Boeing to relocate all 787 Dreamliner production to Washington state — a move that’s feeding the GOP narrative that Obama’s Big Government is meddling with job creation, just as the first plane nears its first commercial flight.
“It’s like a lightning rod,” said Gary Chaison, an industrial relations professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. “The Boeing case is so dramatic. All the anti-union forces and all anti-Obama people are coalescing.”
At the same time the president was selling his American Jobs Act in the Rose Garden last week, Mitt Romney was visiting Boeing’s South Carolina factory. The former governor of Massachusetts drew loud cheers for suggesting that any stimulus package should include legislation telling the board to drop its complaint.
“It’s an egregious example of political payback where the president is able to pay back the unions for the hundreds of millions of dollars they have put into his campaigns at the expense of American workers,” Romney said.
Newt Gingrich toured the new plant and called for cutting the NLRB’s funding, while Jon Huntsman did his own swing through the manufacturing facility, advocating that the president step in before it scares business from South Carolina. Rick Perry has accused Obama of stacking the board with “anti-business cronies.”
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who has been driving this debate in her early-voting state, made a surprise appearance at a Michele Bachmann town hall to ask her opinion. The candidate warned, “If the NLRB would also be continuing their current stance, they may not last very long.”
Congress has also jumped into the fray. This week, the House passed a bill that would strip the board of its enforcement power, but the Senate Appropriations Committee narrowly rejected a GOP amendment to deny funding for the NLRB to pursue any order threatening Boeing’s South Carolina production.
Despite the assertions of his critics, Obama’s hands are tied — and the case could get dragged out for years with delays and appeals. Beyond vetoing any congressional proposals, if they make it to his desk, the president has little influence over the complaint or the board’s acting general counsel Lafe Solomon.
“We are an independent agency. It would be inappropriate for the White House to get involved,” said NLRB spokeswoman Nancy Cleeland. “There has not been any communication with the White House about this case.”
Obama broke his silence about the complaint this summer but walked a careful line in his response.
“We can’t afford to have labor and management fighting all the time, at a time when we’re competing against Germany and China and other countries that want to sell goods all around the world,” Obama said at a June press conference. White House spokesman Eric Schultz declined to comment on the law enforcement actions of an independent agency, referring questions to the NLRB.
The case originates with an unfair labor charge filed by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Engineers last year, declaring that Boeing was illegally punishing its Washington state members for exercising their right to strike. Since 1977, the union has gone on strike five times, including a 58-day walkout three years ago.
In April, Solomon filed his complaint at the behest of the union. Then in June, an administrative law judge in Seattle denied Boeing’s request to dismiss the case.
What happens next hinges on Boeing’s intent. While companies can move a factory anywhere they choose, the law prohibits it if a move rebukes employees for exercising their federally protected right to unionize or strike.
Boeing officials deny violating any labor laws, arguing the main reason for choosing South Carolina was to lower production costs and that it has hired 5,000 union workers in Washington since the complaint was filed.
At the same time, the company’s top executives have mentioned past strikes as a reason for the South Carolina move on several occasions. Most explicitly, the chief executive of Boeing Commercial Airplanes told The Seattle Times, “we can’t afford to have a work stoppage every three years.”
The legal battle hasn’t stopped the aerospace company’s production lines, as it gets ready to deliver its first Dreamliner to Japan’s ANA. In South Carolina, the factory’s 1,000 workers have begun the final assembly process on the factory’s first Dreamliner. The goal is that by 2013, the company will be churning out 10 planes a month — seven in Washington and three in South Carolina.
Obama’s one hope for respite is for the two parties to reach a settlement. Cleeland of the NLRB said that while general counsel is not planning to withdraw the complaint, he is willing to participate in any discussions at the request of either Boeing or the union. The NLRB settles about 90 percent of its cases, she said.
The union is willing. “We are and have been open to settlement negotiations,” said spokesman Frank Larkin.
But Boeing isn’t budging. “We feel facts are so strongly on our side,” Boeing spokesman Tim Neale said, adding, “It’s really hard for us to envision what a settlement would look like that would be reasonable.”
And while it’s gotten a bunch of attention from Congress, Neale said Boeing is “not seeking a legislative remedy here.”
In fact, congressional Republicans’ best intentions might go awry should Boeing lose the trial and appeal its case to the full board. In December, there will be three vacancies on the five-person board, as Republicans continue their vow to block Obama appointees. But if there’s a Boeing appeal, the board will fall short of a quorum needed to take it under consideration.
Bill Gould, who served as chairman of the NLRB under President Bill Clinton, noted that even when Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress during his tenure, the NLRB still had strong GOP advocates like the late Sen. Mark Hatfield of Oregon.
“We don’t have anyone on the Republican side of Congress like Sen. Hatfield anymore,” he said. “They’re gone. The dominant voice is that tea party voice. That’s produced extremism even above and beyond what I experienced in [the] ’90s. It was extreme, but not quite like this.”