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With the South Carolina presidential primary fast approaching, Mitt Romney’s campaign released an ad blasting President Barack Obama over a union dispute involving an airplane factory in North Charleston, S.C.
In the ad, Romney stands in front of workers on a factory floor and says that "the National Labor Relations Board, now stacked with union stooges selected by the president, says to a free enterprise like Boeing, ‘you can’t build a factory in South Carolina because South Carolina is a right-to-work state.’
"That is simply un-American. It’s political payback of the worst kind. It is wrong for America, and it is something that will stop under my administration."
Romney made this same basic claim during an October 2011 debate. Its stems from a complaint filed by the NLRB against Boeing over its decision to build a jet factory in South Carolina, instead of ramping up production at its existing union facility in Washington state.
PolitiFact looked into it then and found that Romney distorted the facts.
The Romney campaign told us previously that the source of his October statement was an April New York Times story about the NLRB complaint, which sought "to force Boeing to bring an airplane production line back to its unionized facilities in Washington state instead of moving the work to a non-union plant in South Carolina."
About six years ago, Boeing was making plans for production of its newest passenger jet, the 787 Dreamliner. The company explored making all the planes at its factories in Washington state, but in 2009, it decided to start a second production line in South Carolina. The union plants in Puget Sound would make seven planes a month; the non-union facility in North Charleston, S.C., would produce three a month.
The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers complained. The NLRB’s general counsel, Lafe Solomon, tried to bring the parties together but failed. In April 2011, Solomon formally issued a complaint on the grounds that Boeing built its factory in South Carolina in order to punish the union.
Top Boeing officials had been open about the connection between the machinists union and the new factory. According to the filing, one executive told a newspaper that "the overriding factor (in transferring the line) was not the business climate. And it was not the wages we’re paying today. It was that we cannot afford to have a work stoppage, you know, every three years."
Solomon considered this retaliation against the union for having conducted strikes in the past. As such, he argued Boeing violated the National Labor Relations Act, which prohibits employers from interfering with the right of workers to organize and to strike.
Problems with Romney’s portrayal
Solomon’s complaint initiated a process that sent the case to an administrative law judge. The judge’s ruling would then go to the NLRB to be voted up or down or changed. In short, the law provides a process with checks and balances -- an important point Romney ignored.
(As it turned out, the case ended without a hearing. The NLRB dropped its complaint in December 2011, at the urging of the machinists union after it reached a deal on wages with Boeing.)
In addition, the complaint against Boeing is not based on the fact that South Carolina is a right-to-work state. We spoke to lawyers who think the complaint is well-founded and lawyers who think it’s misguided, but they agree on this point.
Stanford law professor William Gould, a former chair of the NLRB, thinks the general counsel was wrong to move this complaint forward. By his reading of federal law, employers have the legal right to minimize exposure to strikes, and deciding to locate a plant in a place where unions are weak can be a strategy that passes legal muster.
But Gould said Romney did "make an error of fact."
"He’s wrong in suggesting that the general counsel’s reasoning applies … to union or non-union states," Gould said.
Another labor lawyer, Jeffrey Hirsch at the University of North Carolina Law School, concurred. "This has nothing to do with geography," Hirsch said. "You could switch the states, and the case would be identical."
Both lawyers also said that if Romney is suggesting that the NLRB has done anything unusual, he’s completely wrong. "The NLRB has held in countless cases that employers can’t move to another facility for prohibited reasons," Gould said. A prohibited reason would be to punish the union.
Even the spokesman for the National Right to Work Committee, Patrick Semmens, said the issue isn’t that South Carolina is a right-to-work state. "The more fundamental point is that it was a non-union facility," said Semmens, who maintained that Romney’s claim has merit.
The Romney ad claimed that the NLRB told Boeing that it "can’t build a factory in South Carolina because South Carolina is a right-to-work state."
The NLRB’s complaint started a legal process that could ultimately have resulted in a factory closure, but the NLRB as a whole didn’t tell Boeing anything. What’s more, the legal basis for the action centered on whether Boeing was punishing the union for staging strikes, not that Boeing had opened a factory in a right-to-work state. We rate the statement False.
"Free Enterprise," MittRomney.com, accessed Jan. 5, 2012
PolitiFact, "Mitt Romney attack Barack Obama over Boeing plant question," Oct. 14, 2011
Washington Post, transcriptof Oct. 11, 2011, primary debate in Hanover, N.H.
New York Times, "Labor Board Tells Boeing New Factory Breaks Law," April 20, 2011
New York Times, "Labor Board Drops Case Against Boeing After Union Reaches Accord," Dec. 9, 2011
Wall Street Journal, "Obama Makes Recess Appointments to NLRB," Jan. 4, 2012
Complaint and Notice of Hearing, NLRB, accessed Oct. 12, 2011
Interview with Patrick Semmens, National Right to Work Committee, Oct. 12, 2011
Interview withWilliam Gould, Stanford Law School, Oct. 12, 2011
Interview with Nancy Cleeland, National Labor Relations Board, Oct. 12, 2011
Interview withJeffrey Hirsch, University of North Carolina Law School, Oct. 12, 2011
Interview with a Boeing official, Oct. 12, 2011
Boeing Case Documents, NLRB, accessed Oct. 12, 2011
Boeing Response to Complaint, accessed Oct. 12, 2011
Right To Work Committee Mobilizes Against NLRB Power Grab, accessed Oct. 12, 2011
News & Observer, Boeing and the NLRB, Oct. 3, 2011
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