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Working In These Times

Friday, Apr 22, 2011, 6:03 am

NLRB Finds Boeing Broke Law—and Upsets Anti-Union Southerners

BY Mike Elk

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Production of Boeing's long-delayed, problem-plagued 787 Dreamliner has hit another snag.  

Yesterday, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Boeing broke the law by moving production from a union facility in Puget Sound, Wash., to a nonunion facility in North Charleston, S.C. It's yet another move that shows that General Counsel Lafe Solomon is dedicated to vigorously enforcing labor law in ways unlike recent NLRB general counsels.

in 2007, Boeing announced it would create a second production line to produce three 787 Dreamliner planes a month in the Puget Sound, in addition to the production that was already occurring in Puget Sound. Then in October 2009, it was announced that suddenly the company would move the second production line to a nonunion plant in South Carolina. Why the sudden move in production?

In 2008, workers at the Puget Sound facility went out on a 58-day strike. A Boeing official told the Seattle Times, “The overriding factor was not the business climate. And it was not the wages we’re paying today. It was that we cannot afford to have a work stoppage, you know, every three years.”

“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,” International Association of Machinists (IAM) Vice President Rich Michalski said.“Federal labor law is clear: it’s illegal to threaten or penalize workers who engage in concerted activity, and it’s illegal in all 50 states.”

Solomon determined that such changes were unlawful under the National Labor Relations Act; he is seeking an order that would require Boeing to maintain the second production line in the unionized Puget Sound facility. If a settlement is not reached, the next step in the process will be a hearing before an NLRB administrative law judge in Seattle on June 14.

The NLRB’s finding set off a fury of angry statements from anti-union South Carolina Republicans. Keeping South Carolina union-free has always been a priority for the elected officials representing the state. Earlier this year, In These Times covered how the South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) announced that a unionbuster, Catherine Templeton, would head South Carolina's labor agency. Haley said Templeton was hired to specifically to fight union organizing at a large Boeing plant in North Charleston, S.C.

Haley was quoted as saying at the time: "She knows what it takes to take it on and she understands it's going to be a partnership level that we cannot lose. We're going to fight the unions and I needed a partner to help me do it. She's the right person to help me do it." The hiring of a public official to bust private sector unions led IAM to file a lawsuit against the governor.  

Politicians like Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) were quick to accuse the NLRB of engaging in politics. “This is nothing more than a political favor for the unions who are supporting President Obama's re-election campaign. Unfortunately, it comes at the expense of hundreds of jobs in South Carolina and thousands of jobs nationwide," DeMint said in a press release. “There is no doubt that if the National Labor Relations Board's claim against Boeing moves forward, it will have a chilling effect on job growth in my state and in right-to-work states across the country. Using the federal government as political weapon to protect union bosses at the expense of American jobs cannot be tolerated.”

However, the NLRB says the move, while uncommon, is necessary to protect the right to strike and thus collectively bargain. Moving workers’ jobs away when they exercise the right to strike gives companies an unfair advantage in collective bargaining.

“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. I have worked with the parties to encourage settlement in the hope of avoiding costly litigation, and my door remains open to that possibility.”

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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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