Barack Obama
Carolyn Kaster  /  AP
The government's labor dispute with Boeing Co. is turning into a political headache for President Barack Obama, giving his Republican rivals criticize his economic policies.
By
updated 6/29/2011 3:03:25 PM ET 2011-06-29T19:03:25

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 NRLB, 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 work force 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 force employees to be members.

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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.

Haley says the only way to make things right "is for the president to tell the NLRB to back off. And until that happens, it is my job to be loud and annoying and in his face until he realizes that what they have done is wrong."

Even South Carolina's Democrats have piled on, focusing on the complaint's effect on business less than the politics of the board.

"Clearly it's an independent agency and is taking an action that I know was not directed by the president," said Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., a Democrat. "But in this case, I think it was a very, very bad decision and a huge mistake that is not good policy for the country."

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.

But the issue became more awkward for Obama when John Bryson, his pick to head the Commerce Department and a former Boeing board member, openly criticized the lawsuit during a Senate confirmation hearing last week.

"I think it's not the right judgment," Bryson said. He said Boeing officials thought they were "doing the right thing for the country" by keeping jobs in the U.S. and not moving them overseas.

Some Democrats and union officials have stepped up their defense of the NLRB, saying Republicans are misrepresenting the case against Boeing. Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, accused Republicans of peddling "misinformation," distorting the public perception of the case and unfairly attacking the agency.

Labor experts say if the allegations in the complaint are true, it would constitute a standard violation of federal labor laws, which prohibit a company from moving work to punish union workers for past strikes. The complaint lays out several public statements by Boeing executives saying they wanted to relocate new lines for the Dreamliner because of strike activity, including a 58-day work stoppage in 2008.

But such violations can be difficult to prove, especially if the company can show it had other valid motives for opening the new lines in South Carolina. The government has to show the company relocated work for the purpose of stopping workers from exercising their legal rights to strike, said Catherine Fisk, a law professor at the University of California at Irvine who specializes in labor issues.

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.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Paris Air Show 2011

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  1. A Fouga aerobatic plane performs in front of the moon during a demonstration flight at the 49th Paris Air Show at Le Bourget airport, east of Paris, on Saturday, June 25. (Francois Mori / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A visitor checks out the cargo bay of the Boeing 747-8F that flew from Everett, Wash., to Le Bourget. It was the first transatlantic flight of an aircraft powered by a sustainable biofuel mix. (Didier Saulnier / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Visitors walk among the ballast water tanks of the Airbus A380 during a visit inside the test aircraft used for demonstration flights at the 49th Paris Air Show on June 25. (Francois Mori / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A Dassault Rafale fighter takes part in a flying display during on June 25. (Gonzalo Fuentes / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Onlookers watch an Airbus A380 on a demonstration flight during the first public day at the Paris Air Show on June 24. (Francois Mori / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Alphajet planes from the Patrouille de France take part in a flying display during the 49th Paris Air Show on June 24. (Gonzalo Fuentes / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Onlookers gather between aircraft during the first day of the 49th Paris Air Show on June 24. (Francois Mori / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A Eurofighter Typhoon flies during a demonstration on June 23. The show is expected to be visited by 138,000 industry visitors and 200,000 members of the general public. (Etienne Laurent / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. An Airbus A380 takes off on a demonstration flight as a Boeing 787 waits in the foreground at the Paris Air Show 2011 on Thursday. (Etienne Laurent / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Lt. Col Chad Rauls, left, Captain Brandon Brown, center, and Captain Drew Marino, of U.S. Air Force 15th Airlift Squadron at Charleston AFB, South Carolina, pilot a Boeing C-17 Globemaster III during a demonstration flight. (Francois Mori / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. The interior of a Boeing C-17 Globemaster III of the U.S. Air Force's 15th Airlift Squadron at Charleston AFB, South Carolina, is empty for a demonstration flight at the 49th Paris Air Show.. (Francois Mori / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Pilot Hugues Duval in his twin-engined "Cri-Cri", one of the smallest planes in the world, is overshadowed by the Boeing 747-8FA during the 49th Paris Air Show at the Le Bourget airport near Paris on Wednesday, June 22. Duval holds the world speed record for an electrically powered aircraft after reaching the top speed of 262 km/h. (Pascal Rossignol / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A F16 fighter jet takes part in a flying display during the 49th Paris Air Show at the Le Bourget airport near Paris on Wednesday. (Pascal Rossignol / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A Korean Air Airbus A380 lands in background after a demonstration flight at the 49th Paris Air Show at le Bourget airport, east of Paris, Tuesday June 21, 2011. (AP Photo/Francois Mori) (Francois Mori / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (second from the left) visits the space dedicated to Russia at the Paris International Air Show on June 21 at the Le Bourget airport near Paris. (Pierre Verdy / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. The Eurocopter X3 Hybrid helicopter performs its demonstration flight at the 49th Paris Air Show at Le Bourget airport, east of Paris on Wednesday. (Francois Mori / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. France's President Nicolas Sarkozy, left, and Defense minister Gerard Longuet attend the flight demonstrations on the opening day of the Paris Air Show at Le Bourget, near Paris, June 20, 2011. (Reuters) (Pool / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Aerial view taken from an Eurocopter helicopter shows the tarmac with the planes of the Bourget Airport during the first day of the International Paris Air Show on June 20. The air show is expected to be visited by 138,000 professional visitors and 200,000 general public visitors. (Pierre Verdy / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A Lockheed Martin F16 Fighting Falcon performs its demonstration flight, on the first day of the Paris air show, at Le Bourget airport on June 20. (Francois Mori / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. A Dassault 'Rafale' pilote salutes the crowd after a flight demonstration at the Paris Air Show 2011 at Le Bourget, Paris on June 20. According to the organizers, the trade show from 20 to 26 June will feature 28 international pavilions, 140 aircraft including an appearance by the solar aircraft 'Solar Impulse' and the opportunity to visit the air and space museum. (Etienne Laurent / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Visitors attend the first day of the rain-soaked 49th Paris Air Show at the Le Bourget airport near Paris on June 20. (Pascal Rossignol / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A Dassault Rafale fighter jet takes part in a flying display during the 49th Paris Air Show at the Le Bourget airport near Paris June 22, 2011. (Pascal Rossignol / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. The demonstration version of the Airbus A 380 sits on the tarmac of the Bourget Airport, which clipped a structure damaging the right wing the day before the show's opening on June 20. (Pierre Verdy / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Red carpets can be seen from above at the 49th Paris Air Show at Le Bourget airport on June 20. (Pascal Rossignol / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Rockets by the European Space Agency are displayed at the Paris Air Show, in Paris, France, on June 19. According to the organizers, the trade show from June 20-26 will feature 28 international pavilions, 140 aircraft including an exceptional appearance by the solar aircraft 'Solar Impulse', jobs and training area, an 'Alternative Aviation Fuels' village and the opportunity to visit the air and space museum. The International Paris Air Show at Le Bourget is expected to be visited by 138,000 professional visitors and 200,000 general public visitors. (Etienne Laurent / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. The new Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental jetliner lands at Le Bourget airport on the eve of the Paris Air Show June 19. The elongated Intercontinental is the world's longest passenger aircraft and has 51 more seats than a standard 747. (Pascal Rossignol / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. The damaged right-hand wing-tip of an Airbus A380, the world's largest jetliner, with a wingspan of almost 80 meters, is seen on the tarmac on the eve of the opening of the Paris Air Show in Le Bourget, near Paris, June 19. Airbus said on Sunday said it was pulling one of its flagship double-decker A380s out of a flying display at the Paris Air Show, compounding a series of embarrassing hiccups for the EADS unit at this year's big-ticket industry event. (Stringer/france / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. A crew member of a French A400M military aircraft looks out of his window as his plane moves into a static display on the eve of the Paris Air Show at Le Bourget airport near Paris June 19. The plane has been pulled from a flight display because of a gearbox problem. (Pascal Rossignol / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. A worker makes final preparations for a display of the GEnx engine by General Electric, at Paris Air Show, June 19. (Michel Euler / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. A Beriev 202 firefighting airplane releases water during a flying display two days before the opening of the 49th Paris Air Show at the Le Bourget airport near Paris, June 18. (Pascal Rossignol / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Workers carry a "Barak" sea-to-air missile on a static display two days before the opening of the 49th Paris Air Show at Le Bourget airport near Paris, June 18. (Pascal Rossignol / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. A worker wipes an Agusta Westland 139 helicopter on display at the 49th Paris Air Show at Le Bourget airport near Paris, June 18. (Pascal Rossignol / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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