Boeing Co.'s appeal of a labor victory at its North Charleston campus could set national precedents both for the standards small groups of workers must meet to organize and whether alleged conflicts of interest can keep National Labor Relations Board members from voting on cases.
The aerospace giant this week asked the federal labor board to review an earlier ruling that paved the way for flight-line employees at its 787 Dreamliner plant to join the International Association of Machinists. Those workers voted 104-65 last month to join the IAM in a rare victory for organized labor in South Carolina.
The board hasn't said whether it will review the May 21 decision by its regional director in Atlanta, and Boeing has said it won't negotiate with the union until after its appeal of the vote is completed.
"The determination of an appropriate bargaining unit here is of enormous consequence not just to Boeing and its teammates, but to the national economy as a whole," Richard Hankins, a lawyer for Boeing, stated in the company's request for a review.
Boeing wants the NLRB to overturn a ruling that flight-line workers are distinct from the other 2,500 or so workers who help build planes at the North Charleston plant, making them eligible for collective bargaining on their own.
The company says that decision conflicts with an earlier board ruling involving another business, PCC Structurals, that set strict standards for how much small worker groups must have in common — termed "community of interest" — and how different they must be from their co-workers to qualify as a separate bargaining unit.
Mark Schneider, the IAM's general counsel, calls the appeal an illegal delay tactic, adding the regional director's ruling is "thorough, based in fact and consistent with precedent."
The union says it will file an unfair labor practices complaint unless Boeing comes to the negotiating table.
"Instead of honoring its employees' overwhelming vote to form a union, Boeing continues to use its money, resources and clout to keep its flight-line teammates from exercising their freedom," said Mike Evans, the union's lead organizer in South Carolina.
Evans said the union might ask that a pair of labor board members — John Ring and William Emmanuel — be recused from considering the case because they used to work for law firms that represented Boeing in previous labor disputes. The law firms themselves are not involved in the flight-line case.
"We're going to make sure that those who are on the board are in an ethical place to make a decision," Evans said. "I'm not saying any of those members need to be recused, but at the same time it's only fair that we take a hard look at that."
Ring and Emanuel are Republicans appointed to the board by President Donald Trump. Their recusal would give the five-person board a Democrat majority, which is seen as being more favorable to organized labor. However, Bloomberg reported that an NLRB ethics officer has already given at least one of the board members the go-ahead to participate in the flight-line decision.
Boeing said in this week's filing that regional directors apparently are reluctant to apply the stricter PCC Structurals standards without direction from the current board.
"This case therefore presents the board with a timely and important opportunity to direct what the PCC Structurals community of interest test requires," Hankins said.
Boeing says the flight-line workers are part of a highly integrated workforce throughout the Dreamliner assembly campus that has shared supervision and overlapping job functions, making the small group ineligible for union membership on their own.
The IAM says flight-line workers — who get planes ready for test flights, perform inspections and respond to issues raised by pilots — have licensing requirements that other employees don't have and are given special bonuses, training and even clothing that set them apart from the rest of the assembly staff.
The IAM filed a petition to represent the flight line workers on March 5, saying the workers contacted the union "with serious concerns over arbitrary management decisions over overtime, bonuses and work rules," according to spokesman Jonathan Battaglia.
The NLRB's regional director sided with the union following an eight-day hearing in March and the labor board refused Boeing's request to halt an election pending an appeal of that decision.
Michael Carrouth, a labor law expert with the Fisher & Phillips law firm in Columbia, said he thinks Boeing has a good chance of getting the NLRB to grant the review and reverse the regional director's ruling.
"The issue is whether the regional director applied the current analysis properly," Carrouth said, referring to the PCC Structurals standard. "That is an unresolved issue. Boeing is pointing out both legal errors by the regional director and factual problems."
Wilma Liebman, a former member of the labor board, told Bloomberg a reversal is possible, "but I don't think by any means it's a foregone conclusion."
“There is a decades-old precedent allowing skilled trades and discrete craft workers within an overall production and maintenance unit to organize," Liebman told Bloomberg.
The IAM now has until July 10 to file a response to Boeing's request for a review. It could then take months for the board to make a decision on whether to consider the request.
"What is clear is that the small group who voted on the IAM representation is a long way off from even starting any negotiations, much less getting a contract," Carrouth said.
Boeing is one of the Charleston region's largest employers, with about 6,800 workers at the Dreamliner campus and other sites in North Charleston.
The IAM is the nation's largest aerospace union, representing about 600,000 members at companies including Lockheed Martin, General Electric and United Technologies. The union represents more than 35,000 Boeing employees at 24 locations nationwide.