Graham pushes Boeing fight as 2012 campaign issue

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Republican candidates for president should make Boeing’s fight with the National Labor Relations Board over a massive new plant near Charleston, S.C., a centerpiece of their campaigns next year, Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said Wednesday.

The battle between the aerospace giant and its labor unions and over the $1 billion manufacturing plant — the largest private investment in the state’s history — has developed into a major political brawl. The NLRB, now dominated by appointees of President Obama, has filed an action to block the nonunion plant from opening, infuriating South Carolina officials and sparking sharp criticism from congressional Republicans.

“From a Republican point of view, if you don’t see this as government overreach at its worst, if you don’t see this as payback politics at its worst, then you shouldn’t be leading our party,” Mr. Graham told editors and reporters at The Washington Times. “This goes to the heart and soul of who we are as a party. And I think that most people are with us here.”

This bitter labor dispute is becoming a major point of debate as the campaign season heats up. In a wide-ranging interview touching on security, economic and political issues, Mr. Graham suggested the NLRB-Boeing fight could prove a key issue in picking a GOP candidate to run against Mr. Obama next year.

The NLRB filed a lawsuit against Boeing Co. in April, contending that the world’s largest aerospace manufacturer illegally retaliated against union workers for past strikes at the company’s traditional manufacturing base in Washington state by moving work to a new plant in North Charleston, S.C.

The new plant will build the company’s flagship 787 Dreamliner and is expected to spark massive additional economic development and jobs once it is fully operational.

Boeing officials argue that the company has been hiring thousands of union workers in Washington state, even as it was pursuing plans to invest in South Carolina. Boeing workers in Washington have not suffered layoffs or pay cuts, the company said. Boeing’s unions point to statements from company officials that they were looking for other states in which to invest because of the costs of a series of strikes in recent years in Washington state.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other leading business groups have condemned the NLRB complaint, warning that it would set a dangerous precedent in dictating where private firms can make investments.

Top congressional Democrats have criticized Republicans for interfering in the administrative procedures of the NLRB, an independent agency. Mr. Obama sounded a more ambivalent note when asked about the case in his news conference last week.

“It’s an independent agency, it’s going before a judge, so I don’t want to get into the details of the case,” the president said. “I don’t know all the facts; that’s going to be up to a judge to decide.”

But Mr. Obama added he hoped for a settlement and added that, as a rule, businesses should be allowed to expand and invest where they want.

The issue has surfaced in the early days of the GOP presidential campaign. With South Carolina a key early primary state, the importance of the fight is likely to grow.

A number of GOP presidential candidates — including Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman Jr. — have sharply criticized the NLRB action, saying pro-union board members appointed by Mr. Obama were to blame.

Mr. Huntsman told reporters that the president needs to step in and take charge of the NLRB, while Mr. Romney chastised the president for letting the agency run wild.

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