New open-shop Boeing plant sparks uproar
Neither side is budging in an increasingly bitter fight over aerospace giant Boeing’s plans to start production on its 787 Dreamliner fleet at a new $2 billion plant in South Carolina — a move the National Labor Relations Board says was made to punish the company’s union workers.
NLRB officials insist they are simply enforcing existing labor laws, relying on statements and internal evidence from Boeing that they say clearly show company officials discussing the South Carolina investment as a way to circumvent its union, in violation of federal law.
But Boeing, leading business groups and nearly two dozen Republican senators say the board — now dominated by President Obama’s appointees — has greatly overstepped its authority and interfered with a private business decision, all to placate Mr. Obama’s labor supporters.
“Why should companies invest in expanding business in the United States if, at the drop of a hat, a federal bureaucrat can simply reverse that decision and destroy that investment?” asked Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, one of 19 GOP senators who signed a letter to Mr. Obama last week vowing to block the nominations of top NLRB officials if the Boeing decision is not reversed.
The Business Roundtable, a collection of some of the nation’s largest corporations, said in its statement that the April 20 NLRB action, which calls for Boeing to bring the jobs planned for South Carolina back to Washington state, “represents a drastic departure from NLRB and Supreme Court precedent.”
While relatively obscure, the NLRB has long been a flash point in union-management relations. Labor leaders complained the agency did little to protect union rights and collective bargaining under former President George W. Bush, and now business groups fear the Obama-dominated board will take an activist stand against business interests.
The Boeing complaint has also caused an uproar in South Carolina, long a right-to-work state, where GOPGov. Nikki Haley, the state’s two Republican U.S. senators and many of the state’s leading newspapers warn the NLRB action has put in jeopardy a major job-creating investment for the state.
“No government agency should inflict such pointless expense on companies for making what have long been legal business decisions,” the Charleston Post and Courier said in an editorial.
The stakes in the case are not trivial, with workers putting the finishing touches on what will be a $2 billion manufacturing facility for Boeing in South Carolina that has already created some 1,000 local jobs.
Chicago-based Boeing, the worlds largest aerospace company, wanted to start production on its highly touted Dreamliner fleet at a new plant in North Charleston, S.C., in July, to supplement production at the company’s existing unionized operations in Washington state.
In its defense, Boeing notes that it isn’t cutting jobs or production in the Puget Sound area of Washington state and has added more than 2,000 positions there since the 2009 decision to open a second production plant elsewhere.
“If this is Boeing’s way of intimidating employees,” said Fred Wszolek, spokesman for Workforce Fairness Institute, an advocacy group that has long been critical of the NLRB, “it sure seems like a strange way of going about it.”
But the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers in Seattle, backed by the NLRB, wants the second facility to be based in Washington as well. They argue that Boeing originally planned to build the plant there, and that the company changed its mind to punish the union for past strikes. They have videotapes they think can prove this allegation.
“The key thing here is motivation,” said NLRB spokeswoman Nancy Cleeland. “In our complaint, we allege they made it very clear to the union members they were doing this to retaliate against them.”
Boeing contends that shifting some for the Dreamliner production to North Charleston is a smart business decision, not a means of retaliation.
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