Boeing case may prompt change: Firms might have to tell unions of moving plans

Mayor Joe Riley, Sen. Lindsey Graham, Gov. Nikki Haley, Rep. Bobby Harrell and Congressman Tim Scott spoke recently against the National Labor Relations Board's lawsuit against Boeing.

Alan Hawes

WASHINGTON -- Companies may have to give unions more information about their relocation plans under a proposal being considered by the National Labor Relations Board, which is under fire for a case against Boeing Co. over its North Charleston factory site.

Employers would have to share information with unions even if labor costs aren't the main reason for a relocation, said James Sherk, a labor analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, which has said it supports free markets.

The change, outlined in a May 10 memo from the NLRB's associate general counsel, would require companies to engage in more bargaining over relocations, Sherk said.

"It's a shift, part of a broader pattern to move labor law to negotiating over core business plans such as relocating," he said.

The board may propose asking employers to provide unions with information if labor costs play any role in a relocation decision, rather than being the main cause, he said.

The memo may add to criticism of the NLRB, an independent agency that investigates unfair labor practices. The board is being attacked by Republicans and business groups for a lawsuit last month alleging that Boeing retaliated against union workers in Washington state by adding a nonunion airplane factory in North Charleston.

"This is an extremely early stage of a process that may lead to re-evaluating one aspect of board law with an eye toward making it more useful and efficient for all parties," Nancy Cleeland, an agency spokeswoman, said in an email.

Ronald Meisburg, a lawyer in Washington and the NLRB's general counsel under President George W. Bush, said on his blog on Monday that compelling businesses to give relocation details "would be a significant departure" from current practice. It may "significantly burden decision making," he said.

Forcing companies to provide information and bargain with unions won't deter complaints from labor about moving facilities, Meisburg said, citing Boeing statements that it met with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which then lodged a complaint with the NLRB.

"The irony is that Boeing reportedly did bargain with the union," Meisburg said. "You bargain and then what happens?"

The NLRB memo is tied to a case involving Embarq Corp. and the AFL-CIO, in which the board decided this year that the telecommunications company didn't violate the law by refusing to bargain with the union over a decision to close a Las Vegas call center and relocate the work to Florida.

In the Embarq decision, NLRB Chairman Wilma Liebman said "the law does not compel the production of" information on relocation decisions to a union. The NLRB wants companies to provide detailed economic justifications for a move to let unions bargain.

Embarq was acquired in 2009 by CenturyTel, which was renamed CenturyLink, a Monroe, La.-based provider of communications services.

The memo sent to the board's regional directors after the Embarq ruling sought information on pending cases that might support a requirement for more disclosure of decisions.

Boeing, the world's biggest aerospace company, had extensive discussions with the machinists union over the location of a second line for the 787 Dreamliner aircraft, said Michael Eastman, executive director of labor law policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The Boeing lawsuit proposes an unprecedented remedy that would force the company to open a second line in Washington state after building a factory in South Carolina, he said.

The first 200 of an estimated 3,800 workers the company plans to employ at its Charleston International Airport campus began moving into the $750 million plant last weekend.

In the Boeing case, Lafe Solomon, the acting general counsel for the labor relations board, filed his complaint April 20, saying the company violated workers' rights by saying it would build a 787 plant in South Carolina to improve production stability because of past strikes by its Seattle-area workforce.

U.S. law bans employers from punishing workers who join unions or stage a strike.

Boeing should build another assembly line in Washington state, Solomon said in the complaint. The North Charleston factory, set to start producing planes in July, is the first commercial aircraft plant that Chicago-based Boeing has built outside of the Seattle area.

The Post and Courier contributed to this report.