Flight risk for Boeing
THE OPENING of a manufacturing plant with nearly 1,000 jobs should be cause for celebration. But Boeing Co.’s $1 billion facility in South Carolina has met a different, less welcome response.
The National Labor Relations Board, spurred by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, hit Boeing with a complaint of unfair labor practices. The board charges that Boeing illegally shipped jobs to South Carolina from the company’s Washington state facility in retaliation for past strikes by unionized workers in Puget Sound. Both facilities will have a hand in building the company’s new and mammoth 787 Dreamliner.
The NLRB pegged its case to “coercive” threats by Boeing executives who told the media that disruptions caused by the strikes played a role in deciding to build in South Carolina. They also spoke of the need to “geographically diversify” to avoid shutdowns caused by natural or man-made disasters and to control costs, which would be easier to do in a “right-to-work” state through lower labor costs.
As punishment, the NLRB is seeking to compel Boeing to move the Dreamliner jobs in South Carolina to Washington state — which the company says would essentially force it to shut the plant. Boeing calls the proposed punishment “indisputably the most consequential — and destructive — remedy ever sought by an officer of the NLRB.”
The law forbids employers from discriminating or retaliating against employees for lawful union activity. To prevail, an aggrieved party typically must show that the retaliation resulted in demotions, dismissals, wage reductions or other punitive measures. In Boeing’s case, these reprisals are absent; the company also claims its collective bargaining agreement gives it the explicit and exclusive right to locate work where it wishes.
The allegation that the company “transferred” jobs out of state is unconvincing because the jobs in South Carolina are new. The company has not cut jobs in Washington, nor has it demoted or slashed the wages of union workers. Boeing has added about 3,000 — albeit temporary — jobs in Washington since it announced its South Carolina plans and says it is likely to add more to keep up with demand for its commercial airliners.
Employers who engage in unfair labor practices should be penalized. But the NLRB’s move goes too far and would undermine a company’s ability to consider all legitimate factors — including potential work disruptions — when making plans. It also substitutes the government’s judgment for that of the company. This is neither good law nor good business.