A U.S. House committee takes to the road today for a politically charged field hearing in North Charleston, S.C., to determine whether the Boeing Co. violated labor laws by moving an assembly operation from Washington State to South Carolina.
"Chairman Issa and the other committee members want to hear from folks on the ground to learn what the economic impacts are and really get their arms around the local impact of the potential decision," said Jeffrey Solsby, a spokesman for Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who is chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
At issue is a National Labor Relations Board lawsuit against the airplane manufacturer alleging that the company illegally moved the assembly of its fuel-efficient 787 Dreamliner from union-friendly Washington to the South, where union influence is less prominent.
Almost every GOP presidential candidate has chastised the lawsuit. Mitt Romney called it a "power grab." Herman Cain said it was "completely unacceptable ... political games." Tim Pawlenty called it "another outrageous overreach by the federal government." And Newt Gingrich accused the labor board of "basically breaking the law."
The labor board, which is appointed by the president, wants to force Boeing to keep assembly of the jetliner in Washington, but would not make the company forgo the new non-unionized plant.
Boeing said a NLRB victory would "significantly impact, and perhaps permanently halt, Boeing's efforts to complete the facility," bringing "substantial economic harm to South Carolina."
The labor board says Boeing moved the assembly to retaliate against union workers at the Washington plant, where there have been five strikes since 1977. The most recent strike in 2008 cost Boeing $1.8 billion, according to the company.
The board has cited comments that a Boeing senior official made to a Seattle Times reporter as evidence that the company was trying to avoid unionized labor.
"The overriding factor [in transferring the line] was not the business climate," the official said. " And it was not the wages we're paying today. It was that we cannot afford to have a work stoppage, you know, every three years."
Boeing said it did not "move" the plant but instead created 1,000 new jobs in South Carolina. The company has added 2,000 new union jobs at the Puget Sound plant in Washington since making the decision to build in South Carolina.
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley was the latest in a long line of Republicans to launch attacks at President Obama over the lawsuit.
"What they have done is come into South Carolina and create 1,000 jobs," Haley said in a conference call with reporters Thursday. "When a president allows a board to take these jobs, he is best friends with every other country who is trying to take our jobs."
Haley said the Boeing labor dispute will be a telling issue in the 2012 election. "I think this is going to be one of the best policy debates we see," she said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he so strongly opposes the "frivolous" lawsuit that he will use Senate procedures to block Obama's nominee for the next commerce secretary, John Bryson, who, coincidentally, sits on the Boeing executive board.
"I can't think of a more damaging way to hurt job creation than for this complaint to be successful," Graham said Tuesday.
Boeing Already Planning to Appeal
Tom Wroblewski, the district president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers union, which filed the initial complaint with the NLRB, said the issue had been high-jacked by conservative politicians.
"Partisan politics, particularly on the right, have seized upon the issue and are spinning it to fit their broader anti-union or anti-Obama agendas," he wrote in a letter to Boeing employees at the new South Carolina plant.
While Boeing spokesman Sean McCormack would not comment on the case's political ramifications, he said the lawsuit raises questions about the ability of companies to make decisions about where they do business.
"Here you have a major American manufacturing company, Boeing, making a billion-dollar investment on manufacturing capacity in the U.S.," McCormack said. "We think that should be celebrated. Instead, we have a threat from the government, more specifically from the NLRB, to call for a remedy that would effectively close the plant."
The NLRB case began Tuesday with a hearing in Seattle and is expected to last a couple of weeks, the board spokesman said.
McCormack said Boeing does not expect to win the case in front of the labor board and will appeal to the U.S. Circuit Court.
"We believe that the complaint is a frivolous campaign not grounded in law and runs contrary not only to NLRB precedent," McCormack said, "but also established Supreme Court precedent."