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The Newest Labor War: Union, Feds Attack Boeing

The Newest Labor War: Union, Feds Attack Boeing

By Tom Bevan - April 22, 2011

Welcome to South Carolina, the newest front in America's organized labor wars.

On Wednesday, the National Labor Relations Board filed a complaint against Boeing, seeking to prevent the aircraft manufacturer from opening a second production facility in Charleston, S.C., for its new 787 Dreamliner.

The NLRB alleges that Boeing violated the law, opening the non-unionized South Carolina plant in retaliation against union workers for past strikes at its facility in Everett, Wash., and also as part of an effort to discourage future strikes. The NLRB wants an administrative court to force Boeing to relocate its second production line back to a unionized plant in Washington.

Needless to say, with labor controversy still roiling some states across the country, particularly in Wisconsin, news of the story rang out like a shot at Fort Sumter.

South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint denounced the move as "nothing more than a political favor for the unions who are supporting President Obama's reelection campaign." DeMint vowed to "use every tool at my disposal to stop the president from carrying out this malicious act."

His GOP colleague in the Senate, Lindsey Graham, called the NLRB's complaint "one of the worst cases of unelected bureaucrats doing the bidding of special interest groups that I've ever seen."

On the other side, the International Association of Machinists District 571, which filed the grievance in March of last year, predictably hailed the filing as "a victory for all American workers."

At issue is not whether companies can retaliate against union workers - they can't - but whether they have the right to open new facilities (or relocate old ones) where they choose based on a variety of business factors, including the consideration of potential labor strikes in the future.

The IAM has had a collective bargaining agreement with Boeing since 1975, and in that time has led five strikes in the Seattle plants, two of them in the past six years. Boeing CEO Jim McNerney has been open about his desire for "dual sourcing" capabilities so that the company can meet its obligations with "strikes happening every three to four years in Puget Sound."

The union contends that the opening of the new non-union facility in South Carolina amounts to intimidation, and that its workers will now be forced to either to accept employment concessions or face the prospect of seeing more and more production migrate from Everett to Charleston. Acting NLRB General Counsel Lafe Solomon fully embraced with the union's novel legal theory, and stated in his Wednesday order that he will seek an order requiring Boeing to build the second 787 Dreamliner assembly line in Washington.

In response to the uproar Thursday spokeswoman Nancy Cleeland responded in an e-mail: "As Acting General Counsel Lafe Solomon made clear in his statement yesterday, this is about the law. The right to strike is guaranteed by the National Labor Relations Act, and employers must stay within the law in making their business decisions."

Boeing's lawyers slammed that claim as "legally frivolous" and said the NLRB's effort to restrict the company's business represents a "radical departure" from precedent. They were quick to point out two 1965 Supreme Court cases affirming employers' right to consider potential strikes in making business decisions, and they refuted the union's claims of intimidation by pointing out that in the 18 months since the announcement of the South Carolina plant, Boeing has added more than 2,000 union jobs in the Puget Sound area.

The NLRB's complaint is controversial because of its conspicuousness - labor experts can't seem to recall any similar complaints or comparable court cases - and also because of the board's inherently political nature. With Democrats taking control of the five-member board in 2008, the New York Times described the move against Boeing as "the strongest signal yet of the new pro-labor orientation of the National Labor Relations Board under President Obama."

The decision by the NLRB to go after Boeing is sure to resurrect tension among the president and the business community. During the first two years of his term, Obama had a testy relationship with many in the private sector and was viewed in some circles as anti-business.

Earlier this year Obama sought to smooth over his relations with the business community, giving a well received address to the Chamber of Commerce on Feb. 7. But just one week later, Obama called Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's budget plan "an assault on unions," while his grassroots organization and political allies kicked off the fight on behalf of public unions that continues to rage today.

Unlike Wisconsin, however, the battle in South Carolina is unions and the federal government pitted against private business and "right to work" states. At stake is whether unions have the power to effectively veto companies' decisions about where they choose to do business.

Also unlike Wisconsin, South Carolina is a critical - some would even argue determinative - early primary state in the Republican presidential nominating process, which is just getting under way. Some, but not all, of the prospective Republican presidential hopefuls are scheduled be in South Carolina in less than two weeks for the first televised debate of the primary season, hosted by Fox News.

The subject of the NLRB's complaint will surely arise. This issue might even prompt candidates who hadn't figured on attending the South Carolina debate to tinker with their schedules. And because of South Carolina and Wisconsin, the war between the federal government and unions versus states and the private sector is sure to be a defining issue of next year's presidential race. 

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics and the co-author of Election 2012: A Time for Choosing. Email: tom@realclearpolitics.com, Twitter: @TomBevanRCP

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