- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 1, 2011

Boeing’s abrupt labor deal with its leading union sidesteps any resolution that may have come from a court battle over the powers of the National Labor Relations Board.

While happy that the case is winding down, business groups are disappointed that the NLRB’s lawsuit against the aerospace giant could fizzle and leave the door open for the agency to continue the practice of relocating companies that it thinks violate labor laws.

“It’s just a shame that the NLRB itself won’t be chastised in court for this half-baked legal theory,” Workforce Fairness Institute spokesman Fred Wszolek said. “There’s the risk that they’ll do the same thing again, having not learned their lesson. We just would have preferred to see it end with the whole thing being defeated in court.”

Still, Mr. Wszolek is spinning it as a win for the business community. “It’s nice to win the game,” he said, “but you’d rather not win on a forfeit.”

Boeing and the Machinists union, who had been tangled in a bitter labor dispute for months, announced this week a tentative four-year collective-bargaining agreement that would ease tensions. Union members will vote on it Dec. 7.

The agreement would give workers annual wage increases of 2 percent, an incentive program that could award bonuses between 2 percent and 4 percent, a ratification bonus of $5,000 for each member, cost-of-living adjustments and a better pension program. But workers also will pay more for health insurance.

This comes as the union has been entangled in a nasty labor dispute with Boeing. The union won NLRB support to prosecute Boeing. Labor leaders accused Boeing of building a second production plant for the Dreamliner 787 in South Carolina, a nonunion state. They said Boeing did it to retaliate against workers in Washington state, where the main production plant is located, for past strikes.

The case has stalled in Seattle courts over the past few months, but at one point it had the potential to reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

If the new contract goes through, the union has said it will withdraw its complaint from the NLRB. But it’s up to the agency to drop the case.

Boeing continues to deny the charges, but will be happy to see it come to an end.

“If the union asks the NLRB to withdraw the complaint, and if the NLRB does withdraw it, that’s certainly welcome news,” spokesman Tim Neale said.

Boeing wanted to sign a new deal with the union well in advance of the end of its current agreement. The company has dealt with five strikes since 1977. The 2008 strike cost the company $1.8 billion, and it didn’t want to go through that again.

“We didn’t go into this with the idea that we’re negotiating a new labor agreement to settle the NLRB case,” Mr. Neale said. “We were negotiating a new labor agreement to get a new labor agreement well in advance of next summer, when the current one expires.”

That said, the deal will also likely solve its labor dispute with the NLRB. Lafe Solomon, NLRB acting general counsel, said the agreement is “a very significant and hopeful development.”

The problem?

Business groups want the courts to spell it out for the NLRB, setting a precedent, so it can’t try to relocate any other companies. They say this is the easy way out and that it doesn’t completely solve the problem.

“He’s tried to exercise the authority once,” said Mike Eastman, executive director of labor law policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, referring to Mr. Solomon. “No court has told him he can’t. So he can do it again.”

The NLRB did not respond to those accusations.

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