Federal labor agency tries to block nonunion Boeing plant

McClatchy NewspapersApril 20, 2011 

WASHINGTON — The top lawyer for the National Labor Relations Board on Wednesday accused Boeing of union busting and retaliating against its Washington state workers for past strikes by moving to produce its new Dreamliner planes at a nonunion plant in South Carolina.

Boeing vowed to fight the NLRB bid to compel the aircraft giant to make the next-generation aircraft at its current plant in Everett, Wash., instead of a half-million-square-foot factory under construction in North Charleston, S.C. The Dreamliner project has been dogged by delays, cost overruns and testing mishaps.

Boeing executive vice president Michael Luttig blasted the ruling as "frivolous," said the company will fight it in court and expressed confidence that production of the 787s will begin as scheduled this summer at its new North Charleston plant.

"Boeing has every right under both federal law and its collective bargaining agreement to build additional U.S. production capacity outside of the Puget Sound region," Luttig said.

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which had filed a complaint with the federal labor agency last year on behalf of its 25,000 Boeing workers in the Puget Sound region of Washington, hailed the ruling by NLRB acting general counsel Lafe Solomon.

"Boeing's decision to build a 787 assembly line in South Carolina sent a message that Boeing workers would suffer financial harm for exercising their collective bargaining rights," said Rich Michalski, the union's vice president. "Federal law is clear: It's illegal to threaten or penalize workers who engage in concerted activity."

The union claims that Boeing rejected new labor agreements in accepting almost $900 million in incentives and tax relief from South Carolina to build the Dreamliner in North Charleston.

A total of 2,500 workers already make parts of the Dreamliner's fuselage at adjoining Charleston plants.

George Behan, a spokesman Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., said the longtime Boeing ally is following the dispute with great interest. Dicks was instrumental in steering a long-disputed $35 billion contract for Air Force refueling tankers to the company.

"He recognizes that this step by the NLRB indicates that evidence presented by the union has met a threshold for further action," Behan said. "He will be paying very close attention to the proceedings."

Washington state's senators, Democrats Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, declined to comment on the ruling.

But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., delivered a scathing indictment of the NLRB move.

"This is one of the worst examples of unelected bureaucrats doing the bidding of special interest groups that I've ever seen," Graham said. "In this case, the NLRB is doing the bidding of the unions at great cost to South Carolina and our nation's economy."

Boeing must file a response to the NLRB complaint by May 4. An administrative law judge will hear the case in Seattle on June 14, with Boeing and union representatives pitted on opposite sides.

Solomon, the NLRB's top lawyer, alleged in his complaint that Boeing's decision to open a factory in South Carolina was made in retaliation for five strikes at its Seattle-area plants between 1977 and 2008.

Solomon cited a half dozen company documents in which various Boeing officials told investors and other groups that the strikes and other threatened work stoppages had caused production delays and made it hard to hit delivery deadlines.

"A worker's right to strike is a fundamental right guaranteed by the National Labor Relations Act," Solomon said. "We also recognize the rights of employers to make business decisions based on their economic interests, but they must do so within the law."

Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C., accused President Barack Obama of playing politics to appease his pro-labor allies.

"Such heavy-handed tactics on behalf of the president's union supporters are an affront to the people of the Palmetto State who voted overwhelmingly in support of a constitutional amendment guaranteeing workers the right to secret ballots in union elections," Scott said.

Obama's chief of staff, Bill Daley, was on Boeing's board of directors in October 2009 when it voted unanimously to build the Dreamliner's new final-assembly line at the North Charleston site, a $750 million investment projected to create 3,800 jobs in South Carolina.

MORE FROM MCCLATCHY

S.C. Democrats call anti-union legislation a 'political ploy'

How one lawmaker steered tanker contract to Boeing

Thousands of jobs could follow Boeing to South Carolina

Boeing picks South Carolina for Dreamliner assembly line

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