WASHINGTON -- Thirty-four Republican senators introduced legislation Thursday to protect states' "right-to-work" status and to ban the chief federal labor agency from determining where companies can do business.
The measure is the GOP response to a bid by the top lawyer for the National Labor Relations Board to prevent Boeing from opening a North Charleston plant this summer to make its next-generation 787 Dreamliner planes.
Lafe Solomon, the NLRB's acting general counsel, charges that Boeing violated federal labor laws that protect workers' collective-bargaining rights by deciding to build the factory at Charleston International Airport instead of at the aerospace giant's hub in Everett, Wash.
Solomon claims that Boeing executives chose South Carolina, a right-to-work state, to retaliate against the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers for having led four strikes at its Puget Sound facilities since 1977.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican who crafted the measure, said the Boeing case had broad implications.
"This is not just about South Carolina, and it's not just about making airplanes," Alexander said. "This is about jobs in every state in the country, and whether or not manufacturers are going to be able to make in the United States what they sell in the United States."
Obama aides declined to comment on the legislation. NLRB spokeswoman Nancy Cleeland said the Boeing case didn't threaten the 22 states that had implemented laws banning union membership as a condition of employment.
The NLRB complaint "has nothing to do with right-to-work (state) laws, which are expressly permitted under our statute," Cleeland said. "Rather, it concerns a particular line of assembly work that was allegedly moved for discriminatory reasons. The effect would have been the same if the line had been moved to a nonunion facility in any state."
Boeing isn't moving its Dreamliner factory. The Chicago-based firm plans to open a second production plant at Charleston International, where it intends to build three of the 787 commercial jets per month.
An administrative law judge in Seattle is scheduled to hear the case June 14. He'll decide whether to dismiss the complaint or refer it to the five-member NLRB.
The labor agency has three Obama appointees -- including two former union lawyers -- along with one named by Republican President George W. Bush and a vacancy.
Obama last year made recess appointments of the two former general counsels for large unions -- Mark G. Pearce and Craig Becker -- after Senate Republicans blocked their confirmation.
Solomon himself is serving in an acting capacity as the NLRB's top lawyer because GOP opposition would make it hard to gain the 60 votes required for his Senate confirmation.
The new Senate measure would say that the NLRB can't order a company where to operate and would guarantee an employer's right to decide where to do business. It has a free-speech clause protecting executives' ability to cite their fear of labor stoppages free of government punishment.
Almost all of the bill's 34 sponsors represent right-to-work states. The Republicans' show of force in lining up more than three-quarters of their 43 senators behind the measure signals party leaders' desire to elevate the Boeing case into an election issue next year.
Even if all 43 GOP senators vote for the legislation, it would face an uphill climb toward the 60 votes needed to overcome Democrats' procedural obstacles.
The measure's sponsors said they'd target 11 Democratic senators from right-to-work states, starting with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Reid, though, was defiant in defending the NLRB and criticizing the Republican senators who are siding with Boeing.
"Republicans are threatened by unions," Reid said. "Because Republicans and the big businesses they defend so often try to take away workers' rights, workers don't often vote Republican."
Reid accused the GOP senators of political interference in a quasi-judicial proceeding.
"This kind of interference is inappropriate," he said. "It is disgraceful and dangerous. We need agencies like the NLRB to be able to operate freely and without political pressures."