WASHINGTON — Business leaders and Republican politicians accused President 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 in Everett, Wash., should alarm all 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. "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 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 Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina. "This is something you would expect in a Third World country. This is thuggery at its worst."
Solomon denied Tuesday that his action is politically motivated. He said that Boeing and the Machinists union, 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 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."