NLRB fight is land mine in reelection

President Obama broke his silence Wednesday on the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) controversial complaint against Boeing, implicitly criticizing the decision.

In measured comments, Obama said he didn’t know all of the facts behind the action of the independent board and noted that it must work its way through the legal process.

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But as a general proposition, Obama said, “Companies need to have the freedom to relocate — they have to follow the law, but that’s part of our system.

“What I think 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.

“The airplane industry is an area where we still have a huge advantage ... I want to make sure that we keep it,” Obama said.

Obama faces a no-win situation when it comes to the NLRB, and it showed in his comments.

Obama needs labor’s full-throated support in the 2012 election, which makes it tough to slam an action supported by labor. But he also is courting business’s approval, whose support could boost the president with independent voters.

The NLRB’s complaint against Boeing put the White House back on defense against business after Obama took a series of steps intended to show he could be an ally following brutal battles over healthcare and financial reform.

The NLRB alleged that Boeing broke the law by choosing to build 787 planes in South Carolina, a right-to-work state, instead of Washington state. The NLRB’s complaint alleged that Boeing made the move in retaliation against striking workers in Washington, and argues Boeing should bring those jobs to Washington.

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The decision gave an opening for Republicans and business groups to hammer Obama. They note that Obama appointed members to the board, and argue the action is a reflection of the president’s pro-labor, big-government agenda that focuses on regulations. 

Because the complaint affects South Carolina, an early GOP primary state, it has won enormous attention from Republican primary voters. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican, has said she did not expect one of her greatest challenges in bringing jobs to her state would be a board with presidential appointees.

Republican candidates have piled on, and Obama can expect to hear much about the NLRB in the 2012 race. If the GOP nominee can convince voters that the decision represents a pattern of Obama’s government, it could be a winning card.

It doesn’t help Obama that his own nominee to lead the Commerce Department has said the NLRB made a mistake with its ruling.

“I think it’s the wrong judgment,” Commerce nominee John Bryson, a former executive with Boeing, said in comments offered last week. 

Former Boeing CEO Jim McNerney, whom Obama chose to head his export council, has accused the NLRB of overstepping its authority, and in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal argued the decision was “a fundamental assault on the capitalist principles that have sustained America’s competitiveness.”

While Obama is portrayed by Republicans as a knee-jerk supporter of organized labor, union officials have often been disappointed with the president, and Obama could face a challenge in getting them to come out in full support next fall.

Take the president’s position on trade, where he is supporting agreements backed by big business with South Korea, Panama and Colombia. The deal with Colombia is anathema to the labor movement, which believes that country’s government has done little to police violence against labor organizers.

Labor was also disappointed the White House didn’t do more to push “card-check” legislation making it easier for unions to organize in the last Congress, when Democrats enjoyed a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and a huge majority in the House.

Union members represent only 12.3 percent of the workforce, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report issued earlier this year, but labor issues could be critical in the 2012 presidential race.

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While the NLRB decision is a bit in the weeds for many voters, it’s possible worker rights could be a campaign theme this year.

Doubt it? Consider that legislation in Wisconsin that did away with collective bargaining rights for state workers made national headlines.

David Madland of the Center for American Progress Action Fund argues that by focusing on such issues, Obama can turn his support for labor rights into more votes in 2012.

Madland notes that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) saw his approval ratings plummet after his fight with public-sector workers.

“A lot of these issues are important to voters,” Madland said.

It might be more difficult to convince voters that the NLRB’s decision was a good thing. Obama suggested that with both his silence before Wednesday’s press conference, and then with his answer.