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Working In These Times

Thursday, Jun 9, 2011, 9:35 am

Boeing Targets Union with Legal Probes in ‘Wisconsin of Manufacturing’ Fight

BY Mike Elk

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A Boeing employee works on a 777 passenger plane on one of the assembly lines February 14, 2011, at the company's factory in Everett, Wash.   (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Late last week, three workers at Boeing's North Charleston, S.C., factory filed for a right to intervene in the upcoming National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) case against the aerospace company. As I have reported, the federal agency has charged Boeing with illegally shifting work away from a union facility in Washington state to South Carolina as punishment for a 2008 strike at a Puget Sound facility.

The three South Carolina workers claimed that that they would be hurt if production was moved back to Washington because of the NLRB ruling. By gaining the right to intervene in the NLRB case, the nonunion South Carolina workers would have had the right to subpoena the union—and more important, be seen as the public face of Boeing's argument that the jobs should not be moved back to the union facility in Washington state. Today, an NLRB judge dismissed the three workers' motion.

International Association of Machinists (IAM) officials disputed that the workers were acting on their own without support from Boeing to file their charge. The legal brief was paid for by the National Right to Work Legal Foundation, which is rumored to be funded in part by corporations like Boeing. The National Right to Work Legal Foundation refuses to release records of its donors. The organization's spokesman declined to respond to questions about whether or not the foundation is funded by Boeing. A Boeing spokesman could not be reached for comment.

IAM officials claim all three workers did not work in a section of the South Charleston facility that would be affected if work was moved back to the union facility in Washington State. The NLRB agreed, and denied the motion by the three South Carolina workers to have the right to intervene on the grounds that they had no direct financial interest in the proceedings.  

But the complaint is still significant to understanding the anti-union strategy of Boeing.

The complaint represents a strategy by Boeing to say that enforcement of the law against Boeing would cost American jobs overall. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed written by Boeing CEO Jerry McNeiry, McNeiry claimed closing the factory would cost Americans jobs at a time when they desperately need them.

Union officials say this is a false dichotomy: Whether or not the Boeing plant is located in South Carolina or Washington state, it would create jobs. Also, IAM officials claim that the nonunion facility in South Carolina would eventually result in the loss of nearly 1,800 jobs at the Everett, Wash., facility as work is shifted to the South Carolina facility.

Perhaps even more significantly, the complaint of the three nonunion workers proves IAM’s point that work was shifted to South Carolina because the facility was nonunion. According to the Wall Street Journal, one of three employees involved in filing the complaint was involved in an effort to decertify the union at the North Charleston, S.C., facility. In the motion filed by the three workers, the worker says they led the effort to decertify the union “in part to improve Boeing’s chances of building the new facility.”

Additionally, the motion by three nonunion workers represented a broader legal strategy by a nervous Boeing to pressure workers involved in the rulings. Boeing recently subpoenaed all the communications of several union officials involved in the matter. “They issued a very broad reaching subpoena that may or may not have anything to do Boeing or the NLRB case," said IAM Local 751 spokesman Bryan Corliss, which represents several thousand union Boeing workers in Washington state.

It is extraordinarily rare for a company to subpoena all the documents of union in an NLRB case and is seen by union officials as an attempt to intimidate the union. Meeting the requirements of the subpoena will be very costly to the union. The subpoena request is troubling to union officials since Boeing would be allowed to acquire sensitive union documents that have absolutely nothing to do with the NLRB case at hand. Boeing could acquire documents relating to new organizing at facilities and use the documents to disrupt the organizing and the privacy of the workers involved in the matter.

Boeing, with the help of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, appears to be involved in a no-holds-barred legal and media fight to stop the NLRB from siding with the Boeing workers. The company's campaign is aimed not only at intimidating IAM Boeing workers, but also at union workers in other sectors who would be inspired to file similar charges against a company for moving work away from union facilities.

“For private sector manufacturing workers, this is our Wisconsin. If Boeing prevails, these corporations will have the right to pack up and move for any reason at all,” says IAM Local 751 spokesman Bryan Corliss. “Being able to punish American workers for exercising the rights under federal law is a threat to all workers. If you can't discriminate based on the basis of race creed or religion why should you be able to do it on first amendment of freedom of association."

The question remains: Will progressives respond to the Boeing case the way they responded to Wisconsin? The answer could be vital to future fights over the fate of the country's manufacturing industry.

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Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.

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