Obama calls for settlement in NLRB case against Boeing in S. Carolina

WASHINGTON — The government’s labor dispute with Boeing Co. is turning into a political headache for President Barack Obama, giving his Republican rivals a fresh opening to bash the administration’s economic policies.

From congressional hearings to presidential debates, outraged Republicans

are keeping up a steady drumbeat of criticism over the National Labor Relations Board’s lawsuit against the aerospace giant.

Obama defended his administration’s business policies at a White House news conference Wednesday, saying he wouldn’t interfere in the case brought by the NLRB, an independent federal agency. But he said it would defy common sense for Boeing to have to close a new U.S. aircraft plant or lay off workers as a result of the legal action.

“What I think defies common sense would be a notion that we would be shutting down a plant or laying off workers because labor and management can’t come to a sensible agreement,” Obama said.

The NLRB alleges that Boeing retaliated against its unionized workforce in Washington state by opening a new production line for its 787 airplane in South Carolina, a right-to-work state. The agency wants a judge to order Boeing to return all 787 assembly work to Washington, even though the company has already built a new $750 million South Carolina plant and hired 1,000 new workers there.

The case — which could drag on for years — has become an unwanted distraction for Obama as he tries to mend relations with the business community and contend with polls that show growing public disapproval over his handling of the economy.

It makes an easy target for Republicans, who call it a case of government overreaching at a time when the private sector is struggling to create new jobs. And it’s a major story in South Carolina — a bellwether early primary state in the GOP presidential race. Candidates are lining up to impress voters and the state’s Republican governor, tea party favorite Nikki Haley.

“Obama’s NLRB has united the Republican Party and turned this government agency into a political piñata,” said GOP consultant Scott Reed. “Boeing spent a billion dollars building a plant to create thousands of jobs and it looks like the NLRB stuck their nose in and tried to pull the rug out.”

Business groups and their GOP allies say the government is interfering with the right of company managers to choose where and how to expand business operations. Boeing claims it opened the plant for a variety of economic reasons, but NLRB officials say Boeing executives made public comments showing the move was meant to punish union workers for a series of costly strikes.

For Haley, the case has been a litmus test for every GOP presidential candidate visiting the state. And they have not disappointed her.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, visiting New Hampshire on Monday, said Obama had appointed “union stooges into the NLRB and then they come up with decisions that are really quite extraordinary,” like the Boeing lawsuit that he and others have said will drive companies to seek workers overseas.

GOP presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich called for defunding the agency during a recent New Hampshire debate, saying the case could threaten the viability of the nation’s 22 right-to-work states, where labor unions can’t require employees to be members.

And during a tour of South Carolina last week, GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman called on Obama to step in and end the lawsuit to prevent it from scaring other businesses away from the state.

Obama, ordinarily a reliable supporter of organized labor, has carefully avoided taking a position on the case. At his Wednesday news conference, he said companies need to have the freedom to relocate work in other states, though they must follow the law when doing so.

“My hope is that even as this thing is working its way through, everybody steps back for a second and says, ‘Look, if jobs are being created here in the United States, let’s make sure that we’re encouraging that,’ ” Obama said.

Obama said he wants to make sure the nation keeps its global advantage in airplane manufacturing.

Connie Kelliher, spokeswoman for the local Machinists union, noted that the labor board is not asking Boeing to shut down its South Carolina facility.

“Boeing is free to recall thousands of jobs it has contracted overseas to fill Charleston and other American manufacturing sites to the brim,” she said.

Kelliher said the president’s comments emphasize that the matter is a “law enforcement action that will run its course in the courts. … We want to thank President Obama for reminding corporations of the importance of having positive labor relations, which is what the Machinists union strives for.”

Perhaps the best scenario for Obama would be for the case to be settled, an outcome that many labor experts expect.

“The unions don’t want an adverse decision, management doesn’t want an adverse decision and the best way to avoid that is to reach a settlement on their own,” said Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University.

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