The Senate's top Democrat on Wednesday harshly condemned what he said were "inappropriate" attempts by Republican lawmakers to intervene in a controversial labor dispute now before the National Labor Relations Board.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said the GOP moves were an attempt to "poison the decision-making process" in the increasingly bitter dispute over plans by aerospace giant Boeing Co. to open a major new, nonunion manufacturing plant for its premier 787 Dreamliner fleet in South Carolina.
The NLRB, in a move that has outraged leading business groups and South Carolina officials, has issued a complaint about the move, charging the new plant was an illegal effort to punish Boeing's unionized workers for a series of past strikes.
Mr. Reid said he was not judging the merits of the dispute, but he said the political pressure on the independent NLRB went beyond the pale.
"This kind of interference is inappropriate," Mr. Reid said in a statement. "It is disgraceful and dangerous. We wouldn't allow threats to prosecutors or U.S. Attorneys, trying to stop them from moving forward with charges they see fit to bring to the courts. And we shouldn't stand for this. It may not be illegal, but it's no better than the retaliation and intimidation that is the fundamental question in this case. It should stop."
Boeing now has a plant in Puget Sound, Wash., that manufactures seven airplanes a month. The company is spending $2 billion on a new plant in North Charleston, S.C., to manufacture three more per month. The company says it will not cut jobs or production in Washington state; in fact, it has added more than 2,000 positions since it announced plans to build the new facility in 2009.
"If this is Boeing's way of intimidating employees," said Fred Wszolek, spokesman for Workforce Fairness Institute, an advocacy group that long has been critical of the NLRB, "it sure seems like a strange way of going about it."
But the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers in Seattle, backed by the NLRB, wants the company to build those additional three planes in Washington state, where negotiations for a new plant have turned sour. They argue the company is going elsewhere to punish union workers for several strikes in recent decades. They have videotapes they think can prove this allegation.
"The key thing here is motivation," said NLRB spokeswoman Nancy Cleeland. "In our complaint, we allege they made it very clear to the union members they were doing this to retaliate against them."
The court date for the complaint is set for June 14. The NLRB filed its complaint against Boeing on April 20.
Business groups say the clash is a clear case of regulatory overreach, with the NLRB, now dominated by President Obama's appointees, interfering in what long has been considered private business decisions.
In a letter to Mr. Obama last week, 19 Republican senators demanded he withdraw his nominations of NLRB Acting General Counsel Lafe Solomon and board member Craig Becker — the two men who largely are seen as responsible for the complaint.
The senators say Mr. Obama was "circumventing the will of the U.S. Senate" when he appointed both Mr. Solomon and Mr. Becker to their NLRB posts. In Mr. Becker's case, Mr. Obama made a recess appointment after the Senate rejected Mr. Becker's nomination in February 2010, and it has not had a chance to vote on Mr. Solomon, a career NLRB attorney.
"Why should companies invest in expanding business in the United States if, at the drop of a hat, a federal bureaucrat can simply reverse that decision and destroy that investment?" asked Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, one of Republicans senators who signed the letter.
The Business Roundtable, a collection of some of the nation's largest corporations, said in its statement that the April 20 NLRB action, which calls for Boeing to bring the jobs planned for South Carolina back to Washington state, "represents a drastic departure from NLRB and Supreme Court precedent."
Separately, a group of attorneys general from nine states also demanded the NLRB withdraw its complaint.
Mr. Reid said in his statement the GOP opposition sprang in large measure from the party's hostility to labor unions.
"Let's be honest: Republicans are threatened by unions," Mr. Reid said. "They're threatened because when a large, organized group is so concerned with workers' rights, the members of that group vote in large numbers. And because Republicans and the big businesses they defend so often try to take away workers' rights, workers don't often vote Republican."
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