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A complaint too far

It is almost clockwork: As a new presidential cycle winds around, the early primary state of South Carolina provides a defining issue for Americans and candidates to chew over.

Whether it's a debate about where the Confederate Battle Flag should fly -- or the "real" meaning of secession -- the nation's most-stubborn state can be a tar pit for the incautious politician.

Thus, almost to the day that South Carolina commemorated the 150th anniversary of the first shot of the Civil War, the federal government lobbed a grenade into the Palmetto State, challenging a private industry's right to conduct business there.

Now wait just a cotton-pickin' minute.

At issue is whether Boeing, which is slated to open a new plant this summer in North Charleston and create thousands of jobs, can legally do so. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) contends in a complaint recently filed against Boeing that the company can't open its plant in "right to work" South Carolina because the move is allegedly motivated by an attempt to avoid strikes and thus intimidate Boeing workers elsewhere.

Even though it is perfectly logical that businesses prefer nonunionized work forces, it is technically illegal to make business decisions in retaliation against union workers. Unionized workers in the company's Everett, Wash., facility have gone on strike several times in recent years.

But does this mean that Boeing's decision to locate a second production line in another state constitutes retaliation? Intimidation? Or is it merely a good business decision based on several factors, including a better climate and a tax-friendlier environment? Prettier women? Kidding, kidding!

When it comes to red-meat issues around which conservatives can coalesce, you couldn't do much better than unions versus private industry, especially in historically anti-union South Carolina.

Putting history aside for the moment, this battle simplifies and clarifies the stakes in the private versus public debate and may make it easier for fence-straddlers to pick a political side.

Critics of the NLRB complaint claim that the Obama administration is merely massaging the union vote. Critics of Boeing see the company's business decision as intimidating to its other workers, who may fear their jobs are at risk

The key question isn't whether Boeing executives are trying to avoid strikes and maximize productivity and profits. Of course they are. The more compelling concern is whether unions should be allowed essentially to veto where a company locates and conducts business.

The debate cuts to the core of how this country defines itself. As Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham put it, the complaint is "one of the worst examples of unelected bureaucrats doing the bidding of special-interest groups that I've ever seen."

Meanwhile, one couldn't find a more personal issue to bestir local passions. Feds and "outside agitators" telling locals what to do and robbing jobs in the process? See: Fort Sumter. Obviously this skirmish doesn't compare to slavery or Jim Crow, the end of which did require outside "interference." But even today, it doesn't take much to unscab the twin wounds of invasion and humiliation.

GOP candidates will have no trouble picking the right side of this argument, and Democrats will be hard-pressed to choose such an anti-business posture.

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