Boeing hearing in Charleston is politically polarized

06/18/2011 12:00 AM

06/18/2011 7:28 AM

The partisan sniping of Washington made its way to North Charleston on Friday via a congressional hearing on whether Boeing illegally built a second assembly line for its new 787 Dreamliner aircraft in South Carolina to avoid unionized workers in Washington state.

Republicans on the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee questioned why the Democrat-controlled National Labor Relations Board sued Boeing over its decision in 2009 to locate the plant in North Charleston.

Democrats questioned whether Boeing retaliated against the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers by putting the factory in mostly nonunionized South Carolina to avoid costly labor strikes.

On the hot seat during most of the nearly four-hour hearing was NLRB acting general counsel Lafe Solomon, who reluctantly agreed to testify after being threatened with a subpoena.

"We believe the evidence will show that Boeing retaliated against its employees," Solomon said. "The decision to build a second line in South Carolina was in retaliation for the employees' right to strike."

Solomon later said they have not asked to close Boeing's North Charleston operation.

"The remedy for the complaint is only the beginning of the conversation," he said.

But Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., charged that "mothballing" the new factory is exactly the remedy they are seeking.

During opening questioning, committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., asked Solomon whether hiring new people without affecting current employees is legally considered discrimination.

"There's no cause of action if there's no discrimination, is that correct?" Issa pressed Solomon. "Relocating in a business-friendly environment is not a violation, is that correct?"

Before Solomon could fully respond, Issa brought up Solomon's appointment by President Barack Obama, an appointment still not confirmed by Congress.

"The White House had no involvement in my decision (to sue)," Solomon answered.

Democrats hammered Issa over the appropriateness of getting testimony and questioning the acting general counsel in the midst of an ongoing legal case.

"There is no record" to question Solomon on, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said angrily after pressing Issa as he tried to gavel down her objection as having already been stated.

"It is illegal to discriminate against workers for exercising their legal rights," she said. "Boeing is not above the law. We should not give preferential treatment to any one company."

Gowdy noted that no employees in Washington state have lost jobs because of Boeing's decision to build in South Carolina.

"The NLRB has become a sycophant of labor unions," Gowdy said.

Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C., called the complaint baseless.

"There has been no transfer of assets because there have been no assets to transfer," Scott said.

Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, said the Obama administration appears to be punishing states that have a different philosophy, and the repercussions of the lawsuit could reach well beyond South Carolina.

"This decision could have a huge potential impact on economic development," he said.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, said it is not the NLRB but Boeing that is pitting states against one another.

"It is unfortunate if the people of South Carolina would have to suffer, but Boeing would have that on its conscience," he said.

Gov. Nikki Haley defended Boeing's decision to build in South Carolina and her anti-union rhetoric. Maloney quoted heated anti-union statements made by Haley and asked her if employees in South Carolina could freely vote whether to join a union in a state where the governor is so anti-union.

"Every employee has the right to join a union," Haley said. "What you will find in South Carolina is very few employees want to."

Haley warned that workers across the nation could suffer if companies take business overseas.

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-District of Columbia, challenged S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson on his assessment that Solomon's actions constituted prosecutorial misconduct. She demanded that Wilson produce evidence of specific misconduct as acting chairman Gowdy repeatedly gaveled her down as out of time.

U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., complimented Boeing worker Cynthia Ramaker on her testimony before the committee, telling her she put a human face on what the hearing is all about, "denying your ability to have a job."

Ramaker had said if the new Boeing plant is shut down because of the lawsuit, "thousands of people will be unemployed" and it would be personally devastating to her.

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