Boeing and NLRB'S self-created debacle

Contributing writerJune 12, 2011 

The National Labor Relations Board stumbles into Seattle this week for a hearing that will go a long way toward determining the future of ... the NLRB.

The issue on the agenda is whether Boeing committed an unfair labor practice by locating a second 787 assembly line in South Carolina for the stated purpose of avoiding production disruptions from labor disputes at its Puget Sound area facilities. The real uncertainty in the case, however, is whether the NLRB can concoct a graceful exit from its self-created debacle before it is slapped down by the courts, Congress or public ridicule.

The NLRB’s acting general counsel issued the complaint against Boeing in April, in response to a charge filed by IAM District Lodge 751, saying Boeing’s “statements were coercive to employees, and its actions were motivated by a desire to retaliate for past strikes and chill future strike activity.”

The case has multiple dimensions of weirdness, starting with the fact that the NLRB says the location of work done by an existing union usually is a mandatory subject of bargaining, except that the IAM had already waived its right to bargain on that point.

Then there’s the NLRB’s proposed remedy: “Require Boeing to maintain the second production line in Washington state. The complaint does not seek closure of the South Carolina facility, nor does it prohibit Boeing from assembling planes there.”

Leave aside the broader point of the NLRB asserting questionable authority to tell companies what plants they can operate, an issue on which the board is already being smacked around. Boeing isn’t moving existing work from Everett to South Carolina (although skeptics say that’s the company’s long-range plan), it’s putting an additional line there. It’s doing so not at a greenfield site but at an existing Boeing operation, one that did have IAM representation until workers voted to decertify the union.

As for the proposed remedy: Is the NLRB suggesting that a second 787 assembly line in South Carolina is no good but a third is OK?

Should the NLRB complaint be upheld, the message will be: “If you’re going to move a plant or open a new one, just keep your mouth shut about why you’re doing so. Better still, locate your next production facility outside the United States and beyond the reach of agencies like us.”

The ultimate absurdity of this case is that the IAM may well wind up getting exactly what it wants – more work for more of its members in this region – without the NLRB’s bumbling. Boeing executives have acknowledged that they made mistakes with the global supply-chain model for the 787, sending engineering and production work to companies not up to the task and beyond its monitoring. Boeing got too cute in its drive to off-load costs and work, and is now paying in delays, money and damaged reputation.

That’s why those executives are talking about putting assembly work of the successor to the 737 in a “supersite” or regional cluster of suppliers and subcontractors.

That supersite could be in South Carolina or another state. But the combination of an existing base of suppliers concentrated here and a work force that, contract contentiousness aside, knows how to build airplanes, makes Washington locations much stronger contenders for that new plane. Entities such as the Port of Bremerton and the Arlington-Marysville area are already on the record as being interested.

The threat of a Boeing migration hasn’t passed, but the departure of the region’s aerospace sector’s anchor isn’t inevitable. Preventing that from happening is an effort far more people will throw themselves into than attempting to accomplish a much more hopeless task: Saving the NLRB from itself.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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