Published September 10, 2019 in The Post and Courier
By David Wren
Complaints that Boeing Co. fired workers for supporting a labor union will still be heard despite a ruling this week that blocked the union’s attempts to get a foothold at the aerospace giant’s North Charleston campus.
The National Labor Relations Board said in a 3-1 ruling Monday that flight-line workers at the 787 Dreamliner plant can’t join the International Association of Machinists as their own separate group. The ruling puts an end to the union’s 18-month battle to organize 178 technicians and inspectors.
But unfair labor practice charges filed by the union against Boeing will continue to work their way through the system as the IAM tries to get five fired flight-line workers rehired.
“This is far, far from over,” said Bill Haller, the IAM’s associate general counsel.
A regional director for the NLRB last month said there’s enough conflicting evidence about the five firings to send the matter to an administrative law judge, who will take testimony under oath and determine whether Boeing violated federal labor laws.
Boeing said in a written statement that it “does not tolerate any form of retaliation” and disagrees with the regional director’s decision, but is fully cooperating with the labor board’s investigation of the charges.
“Each of these employees was discharged or otherwise disciplined for violating well publicized, longstanding and objectively reasonable safety and conduct policies, such as falsification of company records, failing to come to work and walking across an active runway despite direct contrary instruction,” the company said.
Three of the workers were fired for purportedly failing to notice a bird strike on an engine following a 787-10 test flight. Two others were fired for allegedly violating safety and other rules. The workers say they were fired for their union support, a charge Boeing denies.
Haller said the IAM will request an injunction calling for the workers’ immediate return to their jobs while the cases are pending. The NLRB would have to approve such an injunction.
“I’ve never seen a case that cries out more strongly for injunctive relief,” Haller said. “Unfortunately, it’s the labor board that does it. All we can do is request that they do their jobs.”
Michael Carrouth, a labor attorney in Columbia, said unions are practically obligated to oppose all disciplinary actions regardless of their justification to maintain credibility with workers. He said employers must convince a judge that it followed its policies, conducted a fair investigation and is consistent in applying discipline to win such cases.
Regardless of how an administrative law judge rules, the decision can be appealed to the labor board and federal appeals court, setting up a process that can take years to resolve.
Robert Barnwell, the IAM’s Grand Lodge representative, said union supporters remaining on the North Charleston flight line are fearful of retribution in the wake of the NLRB ruling.
“They spent a long time fighting this battle, so they’re upset,” Barnwell said.
In its ruling Monday, a majority of the labor board said the union’s proposed bargaining unit of two flight-line job descriptions did not meet federal standards because the workers aren’t distinct from the rest of the plant’s staff.
The IAM attempted to organize the North Charleston site’s 2,700 maintenance and production workers in 2017 but lost that vote by a 3-to-1 margin. Vinny Addeo, the union’s organizing director, said the IAM is still studying its next move but remains committed to establishing a presence at the North Charleston campus.
Addeo said he thinks the NLRB’s ruling this week was based on politics rather than labor law.
“There was a great injustice done,” he said. “I’m sure Boeing and their friends at the labor board are laughing at this right now at the expense of their own workforce.”
Politicians from both sides weighed in on the NLRB’s decision. Gov. Henry McMaster called the ruling “great news” on Twitter.
“We have wonderful companies like Boeing in South Carolina that have good, direct relationships with their employees,” the Republican governor said. “We don’t need unions coming in and ruining that.”
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio, said the ruling was “simply wrong.”
“I stand with the Machinists union in their ongoing fight to bring justice and collective bargaining rights to workers at the South Carolina facility,” Brown said in a tweet.
Lauren McFerren, the dissenting labor board member, also took to Twitter to chastise the three board members she disagreed with. The ruling, she said, sets a standard “prioritizing employer preference over workers’ organizational desires, and robbing workers of their fullest freedom to organize.”