Alan Hawes // The Post and Courier

Nothing less than a who’s who of local and state politics banded together Thursday in North Charleston to denounce the National Labor Relations Board lawsuit against Boeing. From left are U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, Gov. Nikki Haley, S.C. Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and U.S. Rep. Tim Scott.

The federal lawsuit targeting Boeing Co. and its new South Carolina aircraft plant is likely to spur a protracted and costly legal battle that could wind its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But it's not expected to affect the opening this summer of the $750 million assembly line in North Charleston.

The dispute between Boeing and the National Labor Relations Board is shaping up to be one of the biggest union fights that fervently anti-union South Carolina has seen in recent years.

The federal agency's acting general counsel sued the company Wednesday, saying Boeing set up its 787 Dreamliner production plant in North Charleston partly to retaliate against the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers for past strikes in Washington state.

The complaint seeks a court order forcing Boeing to establish the second 787 line in Everett, Wash., the unionized home of the company's commercial airplane business.

Workers at the aerospace giant's local plant are not represented by the IAMAW.

Boeing said this week that it will fight the lawsuit, calling the allegations frivolous. It also said the North Charleston plant would open on schedule.

The next step is a hearing June 14 in Seattle before an administrative law judge who works for the NLRB. The full board would then review that judge's decision, a process that could take months.

If the ruling is contested, the case would be transferred to the federal appeals court system and possibly be submitted for consideration to the Supreme Court if necessary, legal experts said. That would eat up at least two more years.

"It conceivably could go to that," said Dennis R. Nolan, the Webster Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Labor Law at the University of South Carolina School of Law. "From Boeing's perspective, there is no doubt this is a big enough deal to go ahead with it."

If Boeing loses, the local 787 plant "in theory" could be closed, but Nolan stressed that the courts "have been reluctant to order extremely expensive remedies when less-expensive remedies could do the trick."

Eric C. Schweitzer, an attorney in the Charleston office of Ogletree Deakins who represents management in labor disputes, said the Boeing lawsuit is "probably the biggest labor-law case in the last 50 years."

The lawsuit was triggered by a March 2010 complaint from the IAMAW, which has engaged in five strikes against Boeing between 1977 and 2008.

The NLRB said its investigation found that the company violated two sections of the National Labor Relations Act in 2009 when it picked Charleston International Airport as the site of its second 787 assembly plant, rather than expanding its existing factory in Everett.

Specifically, Boeing officials made "coercive statements" to its unionized employees starting in 2009 that the company would shift or had shifted production work away from the Puget Sound area because of labor walkouts, the agency said.

According to the lawsuit, Boeing acted out of "a desire to retaliate for past strikes and chill future strike activity."

"A worker's right to strike is a fundamental right guaranteed by the National Labor Relations Act," NLRB acting general counsel Lafe Solomon said in statement Wednesday. Solomon said he is still encouraging the union and Boeing to settle their differences out of court.

Boeing said it had met with the IAMAW about building the second 787 line in Everett, but the two sides were unable to come to terms. It also said it is allowed under its union contract to add U.S. production capacity outside of Washington state.

Boeing said it has created 2,000 new jobs in Seattle area since announcing the North Charleston expansion.

The lawsuit has galvanized Boeing's political support in South Carolina.

On Thursday, elected leaders representing local, state and federal offices took turns blasting the merits of the case and questioning why a government agency is seeking to jeopardize U.S. manufacturing jobs. The plant off International Boulevard is to eventually employ 3,800 workers.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Solomon of the NLRB was doing the bidding of a special-interest group. He also predicted a long and expensive legal battle, saying Boeing would ultimately prevail.

Graham said it's highly unlikely that the NLRB would be able to disrupt the company's local operations.

"Boeing is staying. It's going nowhere, just like this complaint," he said.

Joining Graham at a Thursday press conference to discuss the lawsuit were Republicans U.S. Rep Tim Scott, Gov. Nikki Haley, S.C. Rep. Bobby Harrell and North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey, as well as Democratic Charleston Mayor Joe Riley.

All vowed to support Boeing any way they can.

Riley said he already has called the White House about his concerns. He called the NLRB lawsuit "outrageous." Summey said it was "ludicrous."

Harrell said the labor board has effectively "declared war" against South Carolina and the 21 other right-to-work states.