Did Boeing retaliate against the Machinists union? NLRB hearing begins Tuesday

Jun 13, 2011

Last week, Boeing opened a new plant in South Carolina, where it's putting the second assembly line for the 787 Dreamliner.

That’s led to a fight between the aerospace giant and the National Labor Relations Board. The nation’s top enforcer of labor laws filed a complaint against Boeing in April. Proceedings in the case begin Tuesday in Seattle. 

The NLRB alleges Boeing built the second assembly line for the Dreamliner in South Carolina as retaliation for past strikes by the Machinists union in Washington state.  And that, it says, is against the law.

It’s a legally protected right and we exercised it and the company retaliated against us for it,” says Paul Veltkamp.  He's a shop steward for the Machinists union and has worked for Boeing 15 years now.  He says  the company’s actions have had a definite chilling effect.

“People on the shop floor would come up to me, after they announced that they were moving this line to South Carolina and they’d say, we have to have a contract next time.  We can’t go on strike or they’re going to send all of our jobs down to South Carolina.”

Oldtimers say Boeing tries with every contract to take away pay and benefits, even when it’s selling record numbers of airplanes. Frederick Hoskins has worked there for 25 years. He says when top executives repeatedly defended their decision to go to South Carolina with anti-union sentiments, it was too much.

“It was said over and over: we keep going on strike; they want to put it somewhere where they can keep business going. And stay competitive - that’s why they moved it,” Hoskins says.

Boeing says it tried to work with the union, but the Machinsts were making too many demands, including a requirement to keep work in the puget sound region.

“There is a very clear precedent - including from the Supreme Court - that companies can take the economic impact of strikes into account, when making new investments,” says Boeing's spokesman Tim Neal.  He adds that no one has lost a job in Puget Sound as a result of the new plant in South Carolina.

“In fact, we’ve actually added 2,000 hourly union jobs in the Puget Sound region over the past year and a half.”

Boeing workers in South Carolina have joined the fight against the NLRB as well. 

“They would probably board up this facility and I’d be out of work,” says Dennis Murray, a quality assurance inspector at the new facility. He led the effort that decertified Boeing workers there and thinks they're now being discriminated against because of that and the fact that they’re in a right to work state, where unions can’t be mandatory.

It's a fight that has taken on epic proportions, with attorneys general of 16 states now attacking the NLRB - and congress investigating the agency with hearings of its own.

The hearing in Seattle is expected to continue for several weeks - perhaps even months - with the first week devoted to administrative details.  After that, top executive will be called in to testify. 

Many observers say the outcome of the proceedings could have lasting ramifications for the future of organized labor in the United States.