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Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg August 30, 2012

Nikki Haley ties Obama to Boeing labor dispute

For Republicans, one of the clearest examples of ham-fisted government is a dispute last year between the airplane maker Boeing and the National Labor Relations Board. GOP candidates talked about it during the presidential primaries, and the story re-emerged during the first night of the Republican National Convention in Tampa.

Nikki Haley, governor of South Carolina, said the state was "blessed" in 2009 when Boeing opened a plant to build the 787 Dreamliner in her state.

"And what did President Obama and his National Labor Relations Board do?" Haley asked. "They sued this iconic American company."

PolitiFact has examined the NLRB-Boeing conflict before. Just before the New Hampshire primary, Mitt Romney said the NLRB had told Boeing it couldn’t open a plant in a non-union state. We rated that False. Now, by calling it "his NLRB," Haley wants to tie Obama to the labor board's action against the company. So we will assess the accuracy of her statements.

Boeing vs. the union

About seven years ago, Boeing was ramping up to build 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, smaller 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 tried to bring the parties together, but failed. In April 2011, the general counsel’s office formally started a hearing process against Boeing on the grounds that the company built its factory in South Carolina in order to punish the union. Retaliation of that sort, if proven, violates federal labor law.

In December 2011, the union and Boeing struck a four-year deal that that provided raises, job protections and a commitment to make more planes in the Puget Sound area. With the South Carolina plant no longer seen as a threat to jobs in Washington state, the union dropped its complaint and the NLRB general counsel ended the hearing process.

The president and the NLRB

Haley cast the NLRB as an agency that is a direct extension of presidential power. Rob Godfrey, the governor’s spokesman, told us that this is accurate "because the NLRB is appointed by the president, entirely."

He said that it is similar to "the thousands of boards that Governor Haley appoints and is then held accountable for the actions of."

But the composition and presidential influence varies among different federal agencies, and it's a stretch to portray NLRB actions as directly managed by the Obama administration.

"It’s not Obama’s NLRB," said William Gould, who chaired the labor board for over four years during the Clinton administration and is now a law professor at Stanford Law School. Gould disagreed with the NLRB decision to open hearings against Boeing but says the White House would be far removed from those activities.

"It’s an independent quasi-judicial administrative agency," Gould said. "I am sure that the White House had absolutely nothing to do with this. During my 53-plus months, we never heard anything from the White House."

Indeed, we could find no evidence that the White House intervened. The president’s spokesman, Jay Carney, told reporters "this was not something the president was involved in."

The president does have a strong influence on the composition of the board itself. He alone nominates members who are then subject to Senate confirmation. Confirmation votes are easily blocked, and only two of the current members were approved by the Senate. The other two took their posts when the Senate was in recess and could not object. (Obama nominated all four.)

But the Boeing case never came before the four current board members at all. The prime mover within the NLRB was its general counsel, Lafe Solomon. Obama appointed Solomon.

The call for a hearing came when Solomon, who acts independently of the board, filed a complaint because there seemed to be enough evidence to make it stick. Based on such a complaint, the case went before an administrative judge. Had there been a ruling, only then would the case have gone to the NLRB to be voted up or down or changed.

When the union and Boeing settled their dispute, Solomon said, "this is the outcome we have always preferred." The goal, Solomon said, is to foster negotiations between management and unions that protect workers’ rights. "The parties’ collective bargaining agreement does just that," he said.

Later in her convention speech, Haley referred to fighting the lawsuit -- which technically was a hearing, not a suit -- and said that "we won." In reality, the company struck a deal with the union. That ended the legal process.

Our ruling

Haley said Obama and his National Labor Relations Board sued Boeing over its decision to open a plant in South Carolina.

This oversimplifies a complex set of practices and relationships. The practices of the NLRB keep it many steps away from the president. In keeping with that process, the board members themselves did not take any action regarding Boeing. Obama’s greatest influence on the NLRB in this case can be found in his temporary appointment of the NLRB general counsel. The counsel decided to bring the case before an administrative judge.

Haley refers to the government suing, whereas the process is best described as a hearing in which the NLRB represents the interests of the party making the complaint.

There is a measure of truth given the president’s role in appointing the general counsel. We rate the statement Half True.

Our Sources

SC Governor Nikki Haley GOP convention speech, August 28, 2012

PolitiFact, Mitt Romney ad says labor board tried to block Boeing from building factory in South Carolina,  January 5, 2012

Email interview with Rob Godfrey, spokesman for Gov. Nikki Haley

Email interview with William Gould, Stanford Law School

National Labor Relations Board, NLRB acting general counsel announces close of Boeing case, December 9, 2011

Los Angeles Times,  Labor board drops Boeing complaint, December 10, 2012

National Labor Relations Board, Board members since 1935

National Labor Relations Board, 1947 Taft-Hartley passage and NLRB structural changes

NLRB Insight, Nominations, February 9, 2011

New York Times, Labor board drops case against Boeing, December 9, 2011

National Labor Relations Board, What we do

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Nikki Haley ties Obama to Boeing labor dispute

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