NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — Boeing Co. means everything to this community.
At a time when jobs are hard to come by, the giant aerospace manufacturer has given this small Southern town a reason to hope by building a $750 million plant here. It has put thousands of employees back to work, and flooded local stores and businesses with more cash than they can imagine.
"We are so blessed to have Boeing here," said Neil Whitman, president of Dunhill Staffing Systems, a Boeing supplier in nearby Mount Pleasant. "We really, really are."
That's why the community here is so concerned about losing Boeing. The company is fending off accusations from the National Labor Relations Board that it moved work away from Puget Sound, Wash., to punish employees there for past strikes — even though the company has created some 2,000 jobs there since deciding to go elsewhere.
If it loses the case, which could take years to resolve, Boeing has said it might not be able to keep this plant open.
"That would be the most tremendous loss since the Civil War," said Dennis Murray, one of Boeing's Charleston employees. "We'd be left in shambles again."
This is shaping up to be one of the biggest labor disputes of the Obama administration. The issue has attracted national attention. On Friday, members of Congress are traveling here to investigate whether the NLRB has overstepped its authority by effectively trying to shut down this plant and eliminate thousands of new jobs.
Republican lawmakers say they will grill Lafe Solomon, the NLRB's acting general counsel, about the "inappropriate" complaint he filed against Boeing. They will also hear testimony from South Carolina stakeholders, who could lose work if the NLRB succeeds.
Rep. Tim Scott, the South Carolina Republican who represents the area where the factory is located, denounced the NLRB's actions on Boeing as "unfortunate."
"I see it as an absolute joke being played on the American people," he said.
"This has been very, very hard on all of us in South Carolina," agreed Rep. Trey Gowdy, another of the three South Carolina Republicans who will be at the hearing. "We need the work, we want the work, we're hungry for the work."
Mr. Gowdy says the NLRB lawsuit will "fall flat on its legal face," because it is "un-American."
Local unions are caught in the middle.
Donna Dewitt, president of the South Carolina AFL-CIO, said she is happy to have more work here, but she is afraid Boeing did it the "wrong way."
"We want jobs here in South Carolina," she said. "We just want it to be done right. We feel like it's wrong the way it was handled in Washington state."
South Carolina is a right-to-work state, which forbids unions from making either membership or the levying of dues a condition of employment.
Meanwhile, a federal administrative-law judge is considering whether to dismiss the NLRB's complaint against Boeing.
This is the first step in what's expected to be a long legal battle that could take years. The NLRB filed the complaint April 20. The case started Tuesday in Seattle, and the judge will likely take a month or two to rule. The losing party can then appeal the decision to the labor board. After that, the case could go through the federal court system and possibly all the way to the Supreme Court.
Boeing is confident it will eventually prevail in the federal court system, but wouldn't be surprised if it loses before the labor courts, which it maintains are controlled by the NLRB.
Some are concerned that the uncertainty surrounding this case will encourage other companies to leave the country.
"Boeing's a success story," said Fred Wszolek, spokesman for the Workforce Fairness Institute. "They're one of the manufacturers that makes things here and exports there. They're what we need more of in America."
Since coming here, the company has made an immediate impact on the town. Boeing opened the plant for training last week, after two years of planning and construction. Workers will start building the first 787 Dreamliner in July.
By 2013, the goal is to build three planes a month here. Their efforts will complement the seven planes a month the company expects from the original plant in Puget Sound.
Boeing is quickly winning favor with the community. The company has promised to bring 3,800 jobs here, when all is said and done. So far, they've hired more than 1,000 workers. It's an exciting time for North Charleston.
"Everybody in South Carolina has just been very welcoming and generous to us," Boeing spokeswoman Candy Eslinger said. "The community itself just seems to be really involved in what we're doing and interested in what we're doing."
The impact goes beyond the staff Boeing is hiring. The company also is supporting a number of local suppliers, and encouraging other existing suppliers to move here. In turn, they are hiring even more locals, who are investing in the local economy at malls and restaurants and grocery stores.
Bryan Derreberry, president of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, said for every employee Boeing hires, it creates three to four more positions for suppliers to fill with local help.
Mr. Whitman, who runs a staffing agency, has helped Boeing find 60 employees, so far. His revenue is up 295 percent since he started working with Boeing to fill these new jobs.
"They're by far my biggest customer," he said.
Boeing's business has helped him re-hire employees like Jack Beabout, who was laid off for a short time.
"I was definitely relieved," Mr. Beabout said. "I really wanted to come back to work here. If we weren't working with Boeing, I definitely would not have a job."
The same is true for CTS International, another staffing agency for Boeing that followed the company here and opened an office in North Charleston in 2010.
"We're invested here," manager Sarah Gilden said. "We're constantly hiring. We're not going anywhere."
The construction jobs, in particular, have given a big boost to the economy here, according to Lewis Gossett, president and CEO of the South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance. Boeing says it is spending 90 percent of its construction money in-state.
If Boeing is successful, Mr. Gossett said, it could also attract other major companies to come here. "It sends a message to the rest of the world: If these companies think they can come to South Carolina and be successful, you can too."
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