The Republican-dominated House approved a bill Thursday that would undercut the government's labor dispute with Boeing Co., wading into a case that has angered business groups and become a major political issue in the GOP presidential primary.
The measure, approved on a 238 to 186 vote, would ban the National Labor Relations Board from ordering any employer to shut down plants or relocate work, even if a company violates labor laws.
While the bill is not expected to get a vote in the Democratic-run Senate, Republicans are trying to keep up pressure on the agency over a move they claim interferes with legitimate business decisions.
"It tells job creators they don't have to fear an activist NLRB reversing important decisions about where to locate a business," said Minnesota Rep. John Kline, chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.
GOP lawmakers have vilified the NLRB for filing a complaint in April that alleges Boeing violated labor laws when it opened a new production line for its 787 airplane in South Carolina, a right-to-work state. The board's acting general counsel, Lafe Solomon, says Boeing went to South Carolina to punish union workers in Washington state for past strikes and wants the work moved to the West Coast.
Union leaders claim the bill would render toothless the board's ability to enforce labor laws when companies simply eliminate work to get rid of employees who are pro-union. Democrats said the measure would give companies a free pass to punish employees for exercising their rights to organize.
"The bill before us guts the very fundamental rights of American workers to fight for better wages and working conditions and it makes it easier for companies to outsource American jobs overseas," said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass.
Republicans and their allies in the business community have gone after the NLRB for more than a year, as the agency has issued a spate of decisions and rules favorable to unions. The Boeing case has become a rallying cry for GOP presidential candidates courting voters in South Carolina, an early primary state.
Boeing has denied the allegations, saying it had valid economic reasons to open the plant in Charleston, S.C.. The case is pending before an administrative law judge in Seattle and could last years.
While Boeing would benefit from the bill, the company issued a statement Thursday saying it was not endorsing any legislation that might affect the NLRB case.
"We continue to believe the issue would be best addressed by the NRLB withdrawing its complaint," Boeing spokesman Tim Neale said.
The National Association of Manufacturers praised the GOP vote, saying the NLRB's actions are having "a chilling impact on job creation and causing a great deal of uncertainty for manufacturers throughout the country."
The House vote fell largely along party lines, although eight Democrats from right-to-work states voted for the bill. There are 22 states with right-to-work laws that prohibit union fees from being a condition of employment. Seven Republicans opposed the measure, all from non-right-to-work states with large concentrations of union members.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., accused Republicans of wasting time on a bill "attacking workers" instead of considering President Barack Obama's package that aims to create jobs.
But South Carolina Republican Rep. Tim Scott, who sponsored the bill, says the board's action threatens 1,100 jobs in his hometown of Charleston.
"My legislation will remove the NLRB's ability to kill jobs," Scott said. "The government, especially the unelected board, does not need to be involved in the business decisions of the private sector."
The NLRB complaint does not seek to shut down the Boeing plant in South Carolina. The company would be required to move the new 787 production line to Washington state. But Boeing officials say the South Carolina facility was built specifically for construction of the 787. The company says a ruling for the government would effectively require Boeing to close the $750 million plant and lay off more than a thousand new workers there.
Solomon has said the decision to file a complaint was not politically motivated, but was based strictly on evidence that Boeing violated the law. He said Boeing executives made a number of public statements indicating the new plant was built in South Carolina out of frustration over costly strikes by the Machinists union in Washington state, including a 58-day work stoppage in 2008.
"The decision had absolutely nothing to do with political considerations, and there were no consultations with the White House," Solomon said in a statement this week. "Regrettably, some have chosen to insert politics into what should be a straightforward legal procedure."
Boeing officials claim the board took the statements out of context and say they can point to a number of legitimate reasons for locating the new production line in Charleston. The company also argues that no one in Washington state has lost jobs, and in fact, it has added nearly 5,000 union jobs in Washington since the South Carolina plant opened.
The board argues there would have been even more jobs created in Washington state had the company not opened a new line in Charleston.
President Barack Obama has not taken a formal position on the case, saying he is reluctant to interfere with an independent government agency. Obama has said companies need to have the freedom to relocate but must follow the law when doing so.