In his first public comments on a simmering labor-management battle, President Obama Wednesday appeared to sympathize with aerospace giant Boeing in its fight with labor unions and the National Labor Relations Board over a major new nonunion manufacturing plant in South Carolina.
Boeing is contesting a complaint from the NLRB, now dominated by Obama appointees, that it moved production work on its 787 Dreamliner aircraft away from Washington state to South Carolina to punish unionized employees there for past strikes. Business groups and leading Republicans on Capitol Hill have harshly condemned the NLRB action.
In his White House press conference, Mr. Obama was careful to say the NLRB was an independent agency and that it would be up to an agency judge to decide the merits of the case, but added that American companies — especially successful firms such as Boeing — should have the maximum flexibility to make investments within the United States.
“Companies need to have the freedom to relocate,” Mr. Obama said, “and if they’re choosing to relocate here in the United States, that’s a good thing.”
While saying Boeing and other corporations had to obey the law, he added, “What defies common sense would be a notion that we would be shutting down a plant or laying off workers because labor and management can’t come to a sensible agreement. If jobs are being created here in the United States, let’s make sure we’re encouraging that.”
“Obviously, the airplane industry is an area where we still have a huge advantage,” he told reporters. “I want to make sure that we keep it.”
The NLRB has become a source of political friction for the administration.
In addition to the Boeing case, the agency angered business groups earlier this month by proposing new rules that would in effect greatly reduce the time to hold an election after a union tried to organize a worksite.
Several GOP presidential candidates, including front-runner former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Rep. Michele Bachmann and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, have slammed the agency in recent days over the Boeing case.
“Obama’s NLRB has united the Republican Party and turned this government agency into a political pinata,” GOP consultant Scott Reed told the Associated Press. “Boeing spent a billion dollars building a plant to create thousands of jobs, and it looks like the NLRB stuck their nose in and tried to pull the rug out.”
Republican lawmakers and business groups warn the Boeing case could encourage companies to leave the U.S. altogether in search of better business environments with fewer regulations.
They would be stopped from moving to right-to-work states, they say, and afraid to locate in union states for fear that they could never leave.
Many expect the battle to eventually move to the courts and possibly all the way to the Supreme Court.