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Boeing, union headed to court over South Carolina 787 line

A dispute over Boeing's South Carolina 787 line goes before a judge Tuesday, but the case may go on for years.

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By Michelle Dunlop
Herald Writer
Short of a last-minute settlement, the Boeing Co. will head to court Tuesday to face allegations that it set up shop in South Carolina to get back at its Machinists in Washington state.
The jet maker opened its new $900 million facility in North Charleston on Friday with 1,000 workers ready to begin assembling 787 aircraft next month. If the National Labor Relations Board and Machinists have their way, Boeing will need to set up a similar permanent 787 line in Washington to go along with its original Dreamliner line in Everett.
An administrative law judge in Seattle will hear the complaint beginning at 9 a.m. Tuesday.
In 2009, Boeing decided to place a final assembly line for a commercial jet outside the Puget Sound for the first time in the company's history. The company considered both South Carolina and Washington for the line.
"We've made a rational, legal business decision about the allocation of our capital and the placement of new work within the U.S.," Jim McNerney, Boeing's chief executive, wrote in a May 11 opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal.
The decision came after Boeing and its Machinists couldn't come to an agreement on a long-term labor contract. Boeing and the union had been at odds the previous year, when the Machinists staged a 57-day strike before signing a new four-year labor deal.
In the days following the South Carolina announcement, Boeing officials made comments about the need to avoid strikes every three or four years in the Puget Sound area as a factor in picking South Carolina for the second 787 production site. Those comments prompted the Machinists to get the labor board involved, saying the company retaliated against the union for exercising its right to strike.
"No one is above the law," said Tom Wroblewski, president of the local Machinists union, in an interview last month.
Wroblewski likened Boeing's actions to an employer illegally discriminating against a person because of race, gender or disability. Ignoring Boeing's actions and not filing a charge with the labor board would have been irresponsible, he said.
McNerney said the labor board "is selectively quoting and mischaracterizing those comments in an attempt to bolster its case."
Jobs, future
For the union, what's at stake is employment, key to its future.
"It's all about jobs in Everett," Wroblewski said. "These jobs would have been in Everett."
Jobs on the 787 aren't like those on any other plane line. Boeing's all-new 787 is made mostly of composites, instead of aluminum as most jets are. The skills needed by 787 workers are those of the future.
While Wroblewski believes those skills and jobs belong in Everett, Boeing's McNerney argues the company hasn't taken away jobs in Everett to create new ones in South Carolina.
"Not a single union member in Washington has been adversely affected by this decision," McNerney wrote.
Boeing said it has added 2,000 Machinists in the Puget Sound area since making the decision to open up a second line in South Carolina. But the union has said its membership numbers haven't gone up by 2,000 people.
Wroblewski also questions whether Boeing will lay off Machinists brought on for a temporary 787 "surge" line. That line will be in place in Everett until South Carolina's 787 assembly line is up and running. Of the roughly 3,300 Machinists working on the 787 in Everett, Wroblewski estimated 1,800 of their jobs will be eliminated if Boeing shuts down the surge line.
"Boeing's tactic has been to pit those of you who will eventually work for the company in Charleston against those of us who for the time being are working for Boeing in the Northwest -- and that's just wrong," Wroblewski wrote in a letter sent to Charleston workers last week.
Earlier this year, Boeing's Jim Albaugh hinted the surge line could be permanent, eventually bringing Boeing's 787 capacity to 15 jets monthly. But the company hasn't confirmed that will happen.
For the company, the case means being able to make its own business decisions. Boeing's McNerney believes that if the labor board triumphs, it will "prevent all companies from placing new plants in right-to-work states if they have existing plants in unionized states." Ultimately, all U.S. workers, both in union and non-union states, will suffer as companies look to manufacturing overseas, he wrote.
Lengthy process versus settlement
Neither the hearing nor the complaint are likely to be concluded quickly unless a settlement is reached. The legal process could drag on for several years. Boeing's attorney, Michael Luttig, has said he expects to lose the initial proceeding with the administrative law judge. The case could end up going to an appeals court and finally to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The first week of the hearing will deal mostly with procedural issues and won't get to the "substance" of the case, said Nancy Cleeland, a spokeswoman for the labor board. However, the hearing has been moved to a larger venue due to the number of people expected to attend, Cleeland said.
A settlement between Boeing and its Machinists would shorten the process.
Boeing already has batted down one such settlement proposal, company spokesman Tim Neale told the Wall Street Journal in an article Friday. Neale said the Machinists' request "went well beyond what we would consider reasonable."
But Machinists' spokeswoman Connie Kelliher suggested Friday that Boeing hasn't wanted to discuss a settlement. The company has refused to take part in talks before a settlement judge, mediator or face-to-face, she said.
"You can't negotiate by yourself," Kelliher said. Though she added that the Machinists are open to a settlement even after the hearing gets under way.
No talks were scheduled to take place in the meantime, she said.

About the hearing
An administrative law judge will hear the complaint against the Boeing Co. by the National Labor Relations Board. It will start at 9 a.m. Tuesday in the U.S. Court of Appeals Building at 1010 Fifth Ave., Seattle.
For more on the complaint, go to:
Story tags » Boeing787MachinistsLabor dispute



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