American, United deal setbacks to Boeing's 787 plane (copy)

Dreamliner commercial planes are parked on the flight line at Boeing Co.'s North Charleston campus. About 178 Boeing employees who work on the flight line will vote this week on whether they want to be represented by the International Association of Machinists union. File/Staff

Despite a ruling that was supposed to make it harder for small groups of workers within larger organizations to unionize, the National Labor Relations Board continues to give "micro units" the go-ahead to hold union elections.

That includes the 178 flight-line workers at Boeing Co.'s 787 Dreamliner campus in North Charleston, who will vote Thursday on whether they want to join the International Association of Machinists.

Boeing fought the case during a March hearing, saying all of the site's workers are part of a "highly integrated manufacturing process" that makes it impossible to parse out the flight-line employees for representation.

But an official for the NLRB disagreed, ruling this month that there are plenty of reasons to separate the workers the IAM wants to organize from the rest of Boeing's labor pool.

The NLRB "spoke loud and clear" in favor of Boeing workers' rights to join a union, Mike Evans, a lead organizer for the union, said after the ruling.

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buttons stickers IAM (copy)

Buttons and stickers promoting the International Association of Machinists were on display during a rally prior to last year's vote by Boeing Co. workers on whether they want to be represented by the union. The IAM lost that election and now wants to represent a smaller group of flight line employees at the 787 Dreamliner campus in North Charleston. File/Wade Spees/Staff

The Boeing decision comes on the heels of a similar NLRB decision in Oregon, where about 100 welders at PCC Structurals will be allowed to join the IAM despite the company's insistence that they are too narrow a group among a workforce of 2,500 production employees.

It's the second time the federal labor board has considered that case. The first time, in December, the NLRB used it to overturn a 2011 decision — called Specialty Healthcare — that greatly loosened standards for approving small work groups for organizing.

Overturning Specialty Healthcare was seen as a big win for employers because it would prevent unions from gaining a foothold in companies where a majority of workers might not support organized labor.

"Unions can no longer cherry pick smaller bargaining units in which they find employee support," labor lawyer Lisa Berg wrote in the Florida Employment Law Letter.

But it hasn't exactly played out that way.

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Boeing flight line illustration

Boeing South Carolina says a photo illustration on its Facebook page is meant to show the division it thinks the International Association of Machinists is trying to create between flight line and assembly building employees at the North Charleston campus. The IAM says flight line workers have asked for union representation. Provided/Boeing South Carolina

David Carbon, vice president of site operations for Boeing in North Charleston, called the union's assertion that flight-line workers are separate from the rest "frankly ridiculous" during the NLRB hearing in March.

"I mean, it's one part of a bigger production system," Carbon said.

He went on to say that it's no different "to removing your head. I mean, if you were to remove your head and say you still got a human body, you wouldn't. I mean, it works together."

But John Doyle, regional director for the NLRB, said it's clear the flight-line workers are distinct from the others. Among the reasons:

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  • Flight-line workers are paid $8.03 more per hour — or 32.6 percent — than production workers in the nearby 787 assembly building.
  • The flight-line group's hours are different, their shifts are different and their overtime is scheduled separately.
  • They are required to hold an airframe and powerplant, or A&P, license from the Federal Aviation Administration.
  • Boeing acknowledged the North Charleston flight-line workers' special skills by singling them out for a 7 percent raise that no other production workers received.

Michael Carrouth, a Columbia lawyer who specializes in labor issues, said he thinks Doyle used the right standards for determining flight-line workers' eligibility for a union vote. He also thinks Boeing has a good argument that frequent interactions between flight-line workers and the rest of the production crew make the two difficult to separate.

"This is certainly a case in which the NLRB in Washington will need to weigh in on and resolve," he said.

Boeing has asked the board to delay this week's election or impound the ballots if the election is held until after the aerospace giant can appeal Doyle's decision. The NLRB has not made a decision, although Doyle said in his ruling that the election will take place even if Boeing files an appeal.

This is the third time the IAM has attempted to organize Boeing workers in North Charleston. The first, in 2015, ended when the union withdrew its petition days before a scheduled election. Last year, roughly 3,000 workers eligible for representation overwhelmingly rejected the IAM in an election held two days before President Donald Trump visited the North Charleston site to witness the debut of Boeing's first 787-10 Dreamliner jet.

The IAM is attempting to get a foothold in a state with the lowest percentage of workers represented by organized labor. Of the nearly 2 million workers in South Carolina, just 2.6 percent were members of a labor union in 2017, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Carrouth thinks this most recent vote is anything but certain, and Boeing could successfully appeal the decision before an election is finalized.

"Based on my experiences handling similar matters throughout the U.S., it seems the regional director had to take a good bit of time to make a decision," he said. "This indicates this was a close call at best."

                       

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_