August 16, 2022

Boeing Labor Dispute Is Making New Factory a Political Football

That is, unless the federal government takes it all away.

In a case that has enraged South Carolinians and become a cause célèbre among Republican lawmakers and presidential hopefuls, the National Labor Relations Board has accused Boeing of illegally setting up shop in South Carolina because of past strikes by the unionized workers at its main manufacturing base in the Seattle area. The board is asking a judge to order Boeing to move the Dreamliner production — and the associated jobs — to Washington State.

Companies can generally move a plant anywhere they choose, although federal law bars them from doing so if a move involves punishing employees for exercising their federally protected right to unionize or strike. On several occasions, Boeing executives mentioned past strikes as a reason for the move to South Carolina — most directly, when one told the Seattle Times that the “overriding factor” in the decision was “we can’t afford to have a work stoppage every three years.”

The unusual legal action, filed in April at the behest of Boeing’s principal union, has grown into a political conflagration, fanned by deep resentments between North and South, Democrats and Republicans, union and nonunion workers, and fans and foes of Big Government.

Republican presidential candidates have denounced the case as a symbol of President Obama’s liberal agenda because he appointed the labor board’s top officials. This week, Mitt Romney called the labor board’s case a job killer. Newt Gingrich has proposed terminating the board’s funding, and Tim Pawlenty said the case evokes “the Soviet Union circa 1970s.”

At a time of great economic anxiety, the case raises questions about the federal government’s role in promoting — or impeding — corporate investment and job creation.

Facing so much heat, Mr. Obama said on Wednesday that he did not want to discuss details of the case because the N.L.R.B. was an independent agency.

However, “as a general proposition, companies need to have the freedom to relocate,” he said. “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.”

Business and government leaders in the South argue that the labor board is undermining Boeing’s competitive advantage, and they are particularly incensed that officials seem to be favoring unionized workers and plants.

“This is a huge issue because economic development in the South has really been accelerated by the growth of nonunion plants,” said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University. “This case directly threatens the Southern model of economic development.”

For South Carolina, the Boeing plant means far more than just the thousands of jobs it will create directly and indirectly. Boeing is a marquee company, and state leaders hope its presence will help erase South Carolina’s lingering image as an industrial backwater.

“Boeing was a dream come true for South Carolina,” said Gov. Nikki R. Haley in an interview. “They came in and brought the hope of the American dream to this state to create real, good-quality jobs.”

Those kinds of jobs are hard to come by in the Charleston area.

“Everybody I talk to here is excited about this plant,” said one worker, Wayne Gravot. On a recent day at the plant, which is the size of 12 football fields, he and five co-workers were practicing drilling through carbon fiber — a lightweight composite material, as hard as metal, used for much of the Dreamliner’s body.

“It’s a good job, a secure job,” said Mr. Gravot, 45, an Air Force veteran and father of two. Not long ago, he was laid off from a medical devices company and he does not want to end up unemployed again.

The outcome of the case may not be certain for years, as it winds through N.L.R.B. proceedings and likely court appeals. If Boeing loses, it could be ordered to move its three-a-month Dreamliner assembly line from South Carolina to Washington State.

As Ms. Haley and South Carolina’s members of Congress see it, federal bureaucrats have no right to snatch away the state’s prize or tell a global company where to locate a factory.

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