A National Labor Relations Board complaint against the Boeing Co. could do a lot of harm to Washington.
Prodded by the International Association of Machinists, the NLRB alleges Boeing used a potential assembly line in South Carolina as a threat against future strikes, and retaliation for a 2008 walkout that cost the company $1.5 billion. Strikes have become routine, and Boeing executives had told their employees and the media that the expensive stoppages were unacceptable.
The board will have to decide if those statements were coercive.
Usually, disputes like this are resolved before they reach the hearing stage, which they did last week in Seattle. The judge again pressed the two sides to settle their differences.
The NLRB has recommended Boeing return the second 787 Dreamliner production line to Washington, although Boeing could make other planes in South Carolina, where the company expects to build three of the next-generation airplanes per month. The Everett plant will roll out eight per month once all the innumerable snags have been cleared.
Boeing has made it clear it will not walk away from a $750 million investment in Charleston and will appeal any adverse NLRB ruling all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, a process that would take years.
South Carolina’s labor-bashing senators have latched onto the dispute like noisy passengers on a beverage cart. The always outspoken Sen. Jim DeMint calls NLRB members “thugs.” Sen. Lindsey Graham threatens to block President Obama’s nominee for Commerce secretary – former Boeing director John Bryson.
Meanwhile, Boeing Commercial Airplanes Chief Executive Officer Jim Albaugh is at the Paris Air Show, as are Machinists District Director Tom Wroblewski and Gov. Chris Gregoire, who is touting Washington as a location for another Boeing plant where a potential 737 replacement would be built.
Boeing announced $11 billion in new orders for its planes at the show, and the company last week upped its projected demand for aircraft over the next 20 years to 33,500, worth $4 trillion.
The company has hired more than 3,000 workers in the Puget Sound area in the last two years, and Albaugh says more will be on the payroll as it ramps up production.
The state has done what it can to keep Boeing happy after headquarters moved to Chicago in 2000. The Legislature enacted $3.2 billion in tax concessions in 2003, and this year it amended unemployment and workers’ compensation laws to reduce the financial burden on business.
Gregoire characterizes those gestures as “down payments” in her Boeing retention strategy.
The Machinists’ retention strategy is counterproductive. Trying to fence Boeing in will fence other companies out. Look at the experience of the United Autoworkers, who have watched the industry’s center of gravity shift south.
The union makes its best argument for keeping Boeing in the Northwest at its plants, where the talent of its members has underscored the folly of a company outsourcing strategy that has contributed to a two-year delay in 787 deliveries. Now that Gregoire has forsaken a third term, she can afford to make that point – forcefully – to Wroblewski.
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