NEW YORK—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 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 non-unionized 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.)
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. The NLRB just tossed a Kobe tenderloin to the GOP.
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. Other related issues have been somewhat less clear-cut for all but the most ideologically corseted.
In Wisconsin, for instance, where unions and Gov. Scott Walker have battled over whether state workers should have collective bargaining powers beyond wage negotiations, a fair determination could seem elusive at times. Shouldn't workers have the right to negotiate as a team? The governor's position was that the state couldn't afford to meet public-employee union demands on pensions, forcing taxpayers into indefinite debt.
South Carolina's situation is less murky.
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 and their bargaining powers diminished.
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.
Perhaps the question will have to be answered by the courts, but South Carolinians, including Gov. Nikki Haley and Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint, promise a fight. In the interim, a couple of facts are worth considering: One, 2,000 jobs have been added to the Everett plant since the South Carolina project was announced, so job security seems to be a non-issue. Two, given that the South Carolina plant has been well underway for a couple of years, the timing of the NLRB complaint raises questions of motive.
The complaint may be political, but this isn't mere politics. The debate cuts to the core of how this country defines itself. As 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 in a state that boasts politics as blood sport. 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.
Republican 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. Any politician would be mistaken to ignore the stakes. By any other name, this is civil war.
Kathleen Parker's e-mail address is kathleenparker(at)washpost.com. (c) 2011, Washington Post Writers Group