Congress to hold Boeing hearing in SC

Congress to hold Boeing hearing in SC
This photo provided by Boeing shows the site of the new assembly line in South Carolina.
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - A Republican-led House committee plans to hold a June 17 hearing in South Carolina on a federal board's suit alleging the Boeing Co. retaliated against Washington state union workers by building an assembly plant in this southern, right-to-work state.

The move by the hard-charging committee chairman, Republican Darrell Issa of California, represents the latest escalation of the fight between the National Labor Relations Board, which now has a majority of Democratic appointees, and Boeing and GOP elected officials.

The state's new Republican governor, Nikki Haley, has been hammering the Obama administration over the board's decision to sue Boeing for alleged labor law violations.

The U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government announced Wednesday that the hearing will be held in North Charleston, home to Boeing's new 787 passenger aircraft assembly line. The committee has requested that NLRB general counsel Lafe Solomon appear at the hearing.

"This hearing will focus on how your actions against Boeing could impact the thousands of Boeing employees at a non-union worksite in South Carolina," Issa wrote Solomon on Tuesday. "You assert that you do not seek to close Boeing's operations in South Carolina, yet the relief requested would have that exact effect."

An administrative law judge in Seattle is set to consider the NLRB dispute June 14, with any subsequent decision subject to appeal to the board and a federal appeals court. Solomon cited that ongoing dispute as a reason to decline Issa's invitation. Issa said he would subpoena Solomon if necessary.

An NLRB spokeswoman said the agency had until Friday to respond to the committee's request.

The board sued Boeing in April, claiming the manufacturer located its assembly line in South Carolina to retaliate against Washington state union workers who went on strike in 2008. The NLRB wants that work returned to Washington state, even though the company has already built a new South Carolina plant - the largest single industrial investment in the state's history - and hired 1,000 workers.

Most 787s are being assembled in Washington state by members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. Boeing expects to deliver the first one to a customer later this year, and with more than 800 orders, it's expected to be a major seller for years.

Boeing has said stopping work on 787s in South Carolina would be impermissibly punitive because it would effectively shut it down. The Chicago-based company has also taken issue with the labor board's claim that the company removed or transferred any work from its Puget Sound facility, saying all the work in South Carolina will be new and that no union member has lost a job over the action.

The wide-ranging dispute has drawn attention to the anti-union reputation of South Carolina, a right-to-work state where individual employees can join unions voluntarily, but unions cannot force membership across entire worksites. Like many others, the state also bars government employees from collective bargaining. In 2009, just 5.4 percent of the state's workers were covered by unions, according to federal Census data.

"This isn't about harming South Carolina employees," said Catherine Fisk, a law professor at the University of California at Irvine who specializes in labor issues. "What makes it, assuming the facts are proved, illegal for the company to decide to locate work in South Carolina rather than in Washington is the need to protect the Washington employees from retaliation and from the fear that they'll be retaliated against again in the future if they exercise their statutory rights."

Union issues also spill over into state government affairs. A week into office, Haley was sued by the Machinists union for saying the state would try to keep unions out of the Boeing facility. In a February show of disdain for unions, dozens of House members co-sponsored a now-stalled bill that would have exempted businesses from a proposed federal rule that they notify workers of their rights to unionize.

The executive director of a pro-union group said Wednesday that, while the congressional hearing is a distraction, the NLRB's legal case represents a crucial opportunity for parties on both sides to make their arguments - and for the federal agency to do its job.

"It's important for South Carolinians to know that it isn't about the status of the state as a right-to-work state. This is simply about the NLRB, the agency charged with enforcing our nation's labor law, doing its job," said Kimberly Freeman Brown of American Rights at Work. "The sad reality of it is that this is a political game that is being played out at a very serious time for workers in our nation's history."

Republicans and business groups say the board's efforts could stifle economic growth and prevent companies from expanding to other states where labor costs may be cheaper.

Saying he sees the case as an attack on right-to-work states and political payback to labor unions, Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and other Republicans have tried unsuccessfully to put public pressure on the Obama administration to get the NLRB to back off. On Tuesday, DeMint sent a Freedom of Information Act request to NLRB seeking documents including communications with senior union officials, Congress and the administration. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has said the NLRB complaint, if successful, would give unions a virtual veto over business decisions and punish states like South Carolina.

President Barack Obama's appointments have given the NLRB a Democratic majority for the first time in a decade, but it remains an independent agency unaccustomed to overt political pressure from the White House or Congress. Still, Republicans have doggedly attacked the Boeing lawsuit during at least two congressional hearings, and it was a prime topic during the GOP response to Obama's weekly radio address Saturday.

"Everything the NLRB has done up until this point is precedent-setting," said J.J. Darby, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business in South Carolina. "We're terribly disappointed that, when the economy is just now slowly starting to recover ... bureaucrats in Washington would do everything they do to tamp that down."