Boeing’s Flight Plan

May 12th, 2011 by Phil Mattera

Now that Osama bin Laden has been eliminated, the greatest threat to the American Way of Life, a growing chorus of right-wingers seems to believe, is a federal agency that has been around since 1935.

That agency is the National Labor Relations Board, and its atrocity is to have challenged the absolute right of a corporation to invest its money where it sees fit.

The corporation in question is Boeing, which was recently accused by the NLRB of having violated federal labor law by locating a new production line for its Dreamliner aircraft in union-unfriendly South Carolina rather than Washington State, the company’s traditional manufacturing base. The Board’s acting general counsel, responding favorably to an unfair labor practice allegation filed by the International Association of Machinists, charged that Boeing’s siting decision was a retaliatory action against the union.

If the Board complaint prevails, “no company will be safe from the NLRB stepping in to second-guess its business decisions on where to expand or whom to hire,” thundered an official from the National Association of Manufacturers. Equally hysterical statements are being made by conservative public officials and commentators, who worry that the case could imperil job growth in “right-to-work” states. Some Republican Senators are touting a Right to Work Protection Act.

Boeing, meanwhile, continues to insist that its embrace of the Palmetto State was not driven by union-avoidance. Its CEO Jim McNerney just published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal headlined BOEING IS PRO-GROWTH, NOT ANTI-UNION. While it is refreshing to see a major U.S. corporation disavow anti-union animus, McNerney’s statements are disingenuous. This begins with some simple facts.

McNerney asserts that the portion of Boeing’s U.S. workforce represented by unions is “about 40%…a ratio unchanged since 2003.” I hope McNerney is not involving in making any sensitive calculations about the company’s aircraft, because he seems to be challenged when it comes to numerical accuracy.

According to Boeing’s 10-K annual filing with the SEC for last year, 34 percent of its total workforce of 160,500 was represented through major U.S. collective bargaining agreements with the Machinists, SPEEA and the UAW. Other unions represent much of Boeing’s limited foreign workforce (in Canada and Australia), so there is no way the U.S. union percentage can be 40 percent, unless McNerney thinks you can round up from 34.

At the end of 2000, about 48 percent of Boeing’s U.S. workforce was represented by unions. The figure then began to slide—as a result of layoffs, outsourcing and union decertifications that must have been encouraged at least implicitly by management. The number of union-protected Boeing workers in the United States at the end of last year was more than 38,000 lower than a decade earlier.

McNerney’s description of how Boeing ended up in South Carolina is also highly misleading. He claims the decision resulted from an objective assessment of various factors in several states.

The fact is that Boeing set the stage for the move over a long period of time. South Carolina was one of the states considered in 2003 for the first Dreamliner production facility before the company bullied the Washington State legislature into enacting a $3 billion package of corporate tax breaks as the price for staying put.

South Carolina’s consolation prize was that in 2004 Vought Aircraft, a key supplier of the fuselage and other components of the Dreamliner, agreed to build a $560 million manufacturing complex at Charleston International Airport. In 2005 a Boeing executive told a public meeting in Charleston that the Vought operation could receive more Dreamliner work in the future (Post and Courier, 7/19/05). Despite the open anti-union stance of Vought management, the company’s South Carolina workers voted in 2007 to be represented to the Machinists.

Starting in 2008, Boeing bought out Vought’s interests in the Charleston operations. In September 2009 the Machinists union was decertified amid persistent rumors that Boeing would choose Charleston as the location for the second Dreamliner assembly line. In October 2009 Boeing made it official, announcing it would spend at least $750 million on the new production line.

During these years, Boeing executives made a series of public and private statements—some of which are cited in the NLRB complaint—expressing their frustration at having to deal with the assertive union workforce in Washington. Consequently, it was obvious to everyone that the Charleston announcement was a rebuff to those workers. BusinessWeek’s story about the move, headlined BOEING’S FLIGHT FROM UNION LABOR, stated that McNerney was “signaling the lengths he’s willing to go to loosen the union’s chokehold on the company.”

The need for the Charleston facility to remain non-union has been made crystal clear by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who chose Catherine Templeton, an attorney specializing in “union avoidance,” to run the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. “I think we’re going to have a union fight as we go forward with Boeing,” Haley declared in announcing Templeton’s nomination. “We’re going to fight the unions and I needed a partner to help me do it.”

The comments prompted the Machinists to file suit demanding that Haley and Templeton remain neutral in union matters. Haley, instead, has been a leader of the pack attacking the NLRB.

Despite all the righteous indignation being expressed by that pack, there is nothing remarkable or unprecedented about the Board’s complaint, as the Acting General Counsel has taken pains to point out.

What is remarkable is that so many public figures have forgotten that the National Labor Relations Act, which affirms the right of workers to act collectively to protect their interests in the workplace, is official U.S. policy on labor relations, not the “right to work” laws enacted in 22 states to weaken those activities.

Critics of the NLRB complaint incorrectly claim it will lead to the collapse of “right to work.” If only that were true. It will take a lot more—including a huge boost in labor activism—to restore the full rights of workers throughout the country.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.