Boeing Workers in S.C. Have Finally Unionized. But Trump’s Labor Board Could Kibosh It.

Michael Arria June 11, 2018

A Boeing employee is seen silihouetted at Boeing's new production facilities April 27, 2012, in North Charleston, South Carolina. (PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/GettyImages)

On May 31, tech­ni­cians at the Boe­ing fac­to­ry in North Charleston, South Car­oli­na vot­ed to union­ize and join the Inter­na­tion­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Machin­ists and Aero­space Work­ers. How­ev­er, Boe­ing has appealed the vote and Don­ald Trump’s GOP-con­trolled Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board (NLRB) could reverse the deci­sion by rul­ing that work­ers had no right to hold the elec­tion to begin with.

Boe­ing built a Dream­lin­er fac­to­ry in South Car­oli­na in 2009, after its Wash­ing­ton work­ers went on strike four times in a rough­ly 22-year peri­od at its pre­vi­ous Wash­ing­ton loca­tion. South Car­oli­na is a right to work” state with a small num­ber of union­ized work­ers. The NLRB filed a law­suit against Boe­ing after the com­pa­ny moved, claim­ing that the relo­ca­tion con­sti­tut­ed union bust­ing, tar­get­ing the machin­ists’ union in Wash­ing­ton. In 2011, the NLRB dropped the case at the request of the union, after Boe­ing agreed to raise wages and expand its pro­duc­tion back in Washington.

The May 31 labor vic­to­ry fol­lows two pri­or attempts to form a union. In 2015, the machin­ists with­drew a request for a union vote, claim­ing that a fair elec­tion couldn’t be held due to an atmos­phere of threats, harass­ment and unprece­dent­ed polit­i­cal inter­fer­ence.” Last year, the union suf­fered a huge defeat after employ­ees vot­ed 2,097731 against join­ing the union.

This time, the union vot­ed with­in a small­er bar­gain­ing unit, often referred to as a micro unit,” and secured a 104 – 65 win on May 31. How­ev­er, this win could be in jeop­ardy as Boe­ing has appealed the vote, argu­ing that the micro-unit elec­tion vio­lates fed­er­al labor law. That chal­lenge will be heard by the NLRB, which Trump has filled with pro-man­age­ment forces since tak­ing office, tip­ping the agency back to a 3 – 2 Repub­li­can majority.

There is rea­son to be con­cerned that the NLRB will side against work­ers. In 2017, Trump’s NLRB reversed an Oba­ma-era rul­ing that made it eas­i­er for small­er bar­gain­ing units to orga­nize for union­iza­tion, the very strat­e­gy that Boe­ing work­ers used to secure their recent victory.

Under the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act, work­ers can peti­tion the NLRB to hold a union elec­tion, while the board gets to rule on what con­sti­tutes an appro­pri­ate bar­gain­ing unit. In the 2011 Spe­cial­ty Health­care case, the NLRB deter­mined that employ­ers can’t peti­tion to add more work­ers to a bar­gain­ing unit unless the added employ­ees share an over­whelm­ing com­mu­ni­ty of inter­est” with the work­ers already in the unit. The rul­ing, which made it more dif­fi­cult for employ­ers to thwart union efforts, was pre­dictably opposed by busi­ness groups and large com­pa­nies. This makes it almost inevitable that any union tar­get will even­tu­al­ly be orga­nized,” lament­ed David French, the vice pres­i­dent of the Nation­al Retail Fed­er­a­tion, in 2016.

In Decem­ber 2017, Trump’s NLRB reversed the deci­sion when rul­ing that a group of 100 welders at an Ore­gon com­pa­ny can’t legal­ly orga­nize with­out the par­tic­i­pa­tion of the oth­er employ­ees. “[Cor­po­ra­tions] sim­ply want to make it eas­i­er for employ­ers to defeat an orga­niz­ing cam­paign, by manip­u­lat­ing who is in a bar­gain­ing unit,” wrote the Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy Institute’s Asso­ciate labor coun­sel Marni von Wilpert at the time. By over­turn­ing this rule, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has once again shown that it wants to make it hard­er for work­ers to orga­nize and join unions.”

This May, an NLRB region­al direc­tor in Seat­tle ruled that the welders can estab­lish a union after all, despite the Spe­cial­ty Health­care reversal.

Despite the fact that the NLRB denied Boeing’s request for the elec­tion to be paused short­ly before the vote, there is con­cern that the agency will side with the employ­er in response to the May 31 union vote. In addi­tion to the board’s pro-man­age­ment bent, there’s a loom­ing con­flict-of-inter­est wor­ry. Although he’s been cleared to rule on the case by an NLRB ethics offi­cial, board mem­ber William Emanuel’s for­mer law firm rep­re­sent­ed Boe­ing on a num­ber of occasions.

Emanuel’s poten­tial con­flicts of inter­est were a major com­po­nent of his con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing, and this Feb­ru­ary the NLRB vot­ed to undo the rever­sal of an Oba­ma-era rul­ing on joint employ­ers, after it was revealed that Emanuel’s for­mer law firm rep­re­sent­ed one of the par­ties involved. In a report on the mat­ter, Inspec­tor Gen­er­al David Berry wrote that Mem­ber Emanuel’s par­tic­i­pa­tion … calls into ques­tion the valid­i­ty of that deci­sion and the con­fi­dence that the Board is per­form­ing its statu­to­ry duties.”

South Carolina’s Boe­ing plant was one of the first com­pa­nies Trump vis­it­ed after becom­ing pres­i­dent. We’re here to day to cel­e­brate Amer­i­can engi­neer­ing and Amer­i­can man­u­fac­tur­ing,” Trump said at the event. We’re also here today to cel­e­brate jobs. Jobs!” Five months lat­er the fac­to­ry announced a round of layoffs.

Michael Arria is the U.S. cor­re­spon­dent for Mon­doweiss. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @michaelarria.
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