WASHINGTON — Business leaders and Republican politicians accused President Barack Obama on Tuesday of punishing GOP states by trying to block Boeing from opening a major aircraft plant in South Carolina.
The chairman of a key Senate committee, a Democrat, fired back, charging Republicans with launching an "assault on the middle class" by impeding the enforcement of federal labor laws.
Hannah August, a White House spokeswoman, declined to comment.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said the National Labor Relations Board's move to compel Boeing to build a second 787 Dreamliner factory at its hub in Everett, Wash., should alarm all governors and state leaders.
"This issue may have started in South Carolina, but we want to make sure it never touches another state," Haley said at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce headquarters a block from the White House. "We are demanding that the president respond to what the NLRB has done."
The NLRB's top lawyer, Lafe Solomon, filed a case in April charging Boeing with union- busting and retaliating for past strikes at its Puget Sound facilities in deciding to locate the Dreamliner assembly line in South Carolina, one of 22 so-called right-to-work states.
Haley vowed to use all her powers to ensure that the plant, which South Carolina's government gave Boeing $900 million in tax breaks and other incentives to lure, opens as scheduled this summer next to Charleston International Airport.
The dispute has quickly taken on broader implications, with Republicans and Democrats blaming each other for stifling job creation and thwarting the economic recovery.
Even given the rancorous partisan discourse that's dominated Washington in recent years, Republican senators leveled unusually hostile charges at Obama over the case.
"It is absurd, in this country that represents free enterprise, that one unaccountable, unelected, unconfirmed acting general counsel can threaten thousands of jobs," said South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint. "This is something you would expect in a Third World country. This is thuggery at its worst."
Freshman Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky charged that Obama was targeting Republican states by stacking the NLRB with members who wanted to limit right-to-work laws, which prohibit requiring workers to join unions.
"Mr. President, do you have an enemies list?" Paul asked. "Is this decision based on the fact that South Carolina appears to be a Republican state with two Republican senators? Is this decision because South Carolina is a right-to-work state?"
Solomon denied Tuesday that his action is politically motivated. He said that Boeing and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which filed the union-busting complaint against the firm's South Carolina plant last year, would have their views heard by an administrative law judge next month in Seattle.
"We hope all interested parties respect the legal process, rather than trying to litigate this case in the media and public arena," Solomon said.
Depending on the NLRB's ruling in the case, Boeing or the machinists union is expected to appeal in federal court, which probably would prolong the dispute into the 2012 election year.
Republican Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said they were drafting legislation that would ban the NLRB action against Boeing and, more broadly, create federal protections for right-to-work states.
Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, accused Republicans of doing the bidding of powerful corporate interests by trying to weaken labor protections.
"What we are really witnessing here is another example of the Republican assault on the middle class," Harkin said. "Instead of focusing on how we can get Americans working again, Republicans have chosen to spend their time attacking the handling of a routine unfair-labor-practice charge." Cancel
Former Michigan Gov. John Engler, the head of the Business Roundtable, said the Boeing-NLRB dispute disturbed the executives in his trade association.
"It's a threat to every company located in the United States or hoping to do business in the United States," he said. "We're concerned about the precedent this will set. This is a decision that strikes at the freedom of companies to operate in the most competitive and most attractive locations they can find."
Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C, said Boeing wanted its 1.2 million-square-foot factory in North Charleston because South Carolina was a business-friendly state, not because the aerospace giant wanted to punish union workers in Washington state.
"Clearly, this is not about retaliation," Wilson said. "This is about creating jobs."
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