NLRB action hardly helpful

Hopes that the often rocky relationship between the Boeing Co. and the Machinists Union would improve, boosting the chances that the company will base future production lines in Snohomish County, have hit a wall.

It’s a worrisome development, one that threatens the entire region’s economic fu

ture — well beyond the aerospace industry.

Acting on a complaint filed by the Machinists last year after Boeing decided to open a second line of 787 production in South Carolina, the National Labor Relations Board has charged that Boeing’s decision was an illegal act of retaliation against the union for striking — which it has done four times since 1989. The NLRB says Boeing should have to operate the second line in Washington. (Even though the 787 “surge” line it’s already operating in Everett is likely to become permanent.)

That’s a remarkable position. A government agency believes it should be able to tell a company where it can and can’t build a factory. Its implications for business growth in strong union states like Washington are sobering: Why would a new company locate here if it knows it might never be able to expand to another state, like South Carolina, where laws protecting unions are much weaker?

Bad precedent. The sooner a judge throws this case out, the better.

More immediately, the NLRB’s action, and the Machinists’ accompanying tone, threaten to set back the company-union relationship just as both sides are preparing for next year’s talks on a new contract. The success of those negotiations is bound to go a very long way — no matter how the NLRB case is decided — toward deciding whether the next generations of the 737 and 777 will be assembled here or elsewhere.

Union leaders seem to think they can leverage Boeing into staying by playing hardball. They also contend that the company can’t find an adequately trained workforce anywhere else.

They could be dangerously overplaying their hand. They should keep in mind that this isn’t a Seattle-based company anymore. Its first loyalty is to shareholders, not a particular community. And although it’s true that the local aerospace workforce is the best on the planet currently, large numbers of Puget Sound Machinists and engineers are nearing retirement. It might not take long for another region to catch up.

A prosperous future for unionized aerospace workers here depends on a long-term, cooperative partnership with the Boeing Co. The NLRB’s action, and the union’s hard-edged tone, risk undermining that.

Without doubt, today’s Machinists deserve much of the credit for the company’s success. Unfortunately, that ensures nothing for tomorrow.

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