The White House says President Obama’s visit to a unionized Boeing Co. plant near Seattle on Friday will focus on the economy, but the event also is being viewed as a victory lap for Mr. Obama with labor unions that successfully fought the aerospace company’s plans to move jobs to a nonunion plant.
“He’s mixing his campaign and his economic recovery tours,” said Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. “It’s advertising that unionism and economic recovery are on the same page.”
The president’s choice of Boeing is particularly provocative in the wake of the National Labor Relations Board’s complaint last year that the aircraft manufacturer illegally was transferring union jobs from a plant in Washington state to a facility in South Carolina, a right-to-work state. Mr. Obama said that he didn’t influence the NLRB’s action, but that it defied common sense to lay off workers because of the dispute, comments that were viewed as supportive of labor’s position.
The union dropped the suit after Boeing agreed to put the manufacturing work at its plant in Renton, Wash., a result that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney blamed on Mr. Obama’s pro-union “stooges” serving on the NLRB. In the aftermath, some observers say there’s a bit of gloating in the president’s trip to Boeing.
“It is a victory lap in the sense that a voluntary settlement was reached,” Mr. Chaison said. “The Boeing plant is of tremendous symbolic importance. He’s more or less saying ‘It’s okay, it’s a good deal.’ “
White House press secretary Jay Carney said politics isn’t the reason for the president’s stop.
“I think it has to do with the revitalization of the American manufacturing sector most of all, and Boeing is obviously a good story in that regard,” Mr. Carney said. “I think that will be the primary message that he’ll deliver when he visits Boeing.”
Patrick Semmens, spokesman for the National Right to Work Committee, said people in Charleston, S.C., have a very different view of Mr. Obama’s visit to the unionized plant in Washington state.
“His administration is very much in the bag of organized labor,” Mr. Semmens said.
In the 2010 election cycle, the NRWC documented more than $1.2 billion in contributions from private-sector union members toward political activities, the vast majority for Democratic organizations, he said. That doesn’t include donations from teachers or public-employee unions.
Mr. Obama “is certainly indebted to organized labor,” Mr. Semmens said.
At the same time, some union leaders have been diverting resources away from national Democratic campaign committees and toward states such as Wisconsin and Ohio where Republicans have waged campaigns to eliminate or roll back collective-bargaining rights. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has spoken of a new strategy of labor forging an independent voice separate from the Democratic Party.
Mr. Trumka also voiced anger last summer with Mr. Obama for his negotiations with congressional Republicans on debt reduction. Since then, Mr. Obama has promoted a plan to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to create construction jobs and to hire more teachers and police officers.
In what is viewed as a tight presidential election, Mr. Obama’s campaign team will need enthusiastic union support for a strong get-out-the-vote effort.
Several trade unions have threatened to boycott the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., because of its location in a right-to-work state and their disappointment with the weak economy.
Mr. Obama alluded to the enthusiasm deficit among his base Thursday when he told supporters at a fundraiser in California, “Some of the newness and excitement surrounding us [in] 2008 has naturally dissipated.”
Friday’s visit isn’t the first time Mr. Obama has highlighted Boeing and his administration’s efforts to create more union jobs at the company. During an Asia-Pacific summit in November, the president credited his administration with helping to pave the way for Boeing’s $21 billion sales deal with Lion Air, an Indonesian airline.
“The U.S. administration and the Ex-Im Bank, in particular, were critical in facilitating this deal,” Mr. Obama said.
The Lion Air deal was the largest for Boeing since 2006, involving as many as 230 aircraft.
About 78,000 Boeing workers are employed in Washington state, with about 8,300 jobs added last year.
• Dave Boyer can be reached at email@example.com.
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