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Claims that Boeing SC unlawfully fired workers over union support move closer to trial

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Korean Air 787 (copy) (copy)

The National Labor Relations Board filed a complaint against Boeing. File/Staff

Boeing Co. has been hit by a complaint from a federal agency claiming the planemaker unlawfully fired and disciplined employees at its North Charleston campus because they supported joining a union. 

The National Labor Relations Board filed the complaint on Thursday, about eight months after a regional director for the panel ruled that the claims had merit. 

The document consolidates more than a dozen cases based on charges brought against Boeing by the International Association of Machinists, a union that has tried to represent flight-line workers at the South Carolina plant, where the company makes the 787 Dreamliner.

Those claims include allegations that Boeing fired five employees because they supported joining a union and disciplined union supporters more harshly than other workers. 

The complaint also describes verbal warnings managers allegedly gave to employees who favored union representation, including one that a manager threatened to replace workers with contractors if they voted in favor of a union bid. 

Boeing has refuted all of the charges, which the IAM originally filed in 2018.

In a statement Thursday, Boeing said it disagrees with the NLRB's decision to advance the case, describing the allegations in the complaint as "meritless." 

The company said the terminated employees in question were fired for reasons not connected to their union support. 

"In particular, each of the terminated employees was discharged for violating well-publicized, longstanding and objectively reasonable safety and conduct policies, including for falsification of company records, failing to come to work, and walking across an active taxiway despite direct contrary instruction," the statement said. 

Boeing maintained that the fair treatment of employees is its "highest priority" that "applies to everyone, every day." 

"Disciplinary and termination decisions are never made lightly, and we do not tolerate retaliation against teammates for any reason," the company said.

Laura Ewan, associate general counsel for the IAM, said the union is "very pleased to see everything" laid out in the complaint. 

"It really does outline particularly bad behavior on the part of Boeing," she said. 

The time frame between the August ruling and the release of the official complaint was unusually long, Ewan said. That interval is typically "a much shorter time frame," she said, about one to two months. 

While Ewan said she couldn't explain why it took much longer this time, she noted that this is a "complicated case." 

With the complaint officially filed, Boeing will be required to respond. A formal answer to the complaint is due April 23, according to the document. 

From there, the case could proceed to a trial, or the company could reach a settlement. 

In addition to a catalog of the allegations the IAM has lodged against Boeing, the complaint details some of the actions the aerospace giant may have to take, if it were to be found responsible. 

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That could include posting a notice at the North Charleston plant "in conspicuous locations" that would advise employees about their rights. 

The complaint also states that former vice president of 787 operations David Carbon could be required to read that notice aloud to flight-line employees. Carbon held that role in North Charleston at the time the alleged actions occurred but has since left the company.

Ewan said a judge could also order additional actions, such as back pay for the affected employees. 

"We hope that reinstatement (of the terminated workers) would be part of any order," said Mark Schneider, general counsel for the IAM.

While the majority of the North Charleston plant's flight-line workers voted in favor of union representation in a March 2018 election, the NLRB overturned their bid last September. 

Since the proposed bargaining unit — about 178 of the plant's nearly 7,000 workers — included just two job descriptions, the NLRB said it did not meet federal standards. 

The labor board doubled down on that decision when it submitted a court paper in February, arguing that a lawsuit the IAM filed about that decision should be dismissed. 

Politicians on local and national levels have weighed in on the ongoing battle between the IAM and Boeing, including recent Democratic presidential candidate and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders. 

In a letter sent in late 2018 to then-CEO Dennis Muilenburg, Sanders wrote that Boeing had pursued a "campaign of intimidation" instead of negotiating with flight-line workers. 

On the other side of the political aisle, Gov. Henry McMaster once called the IAM's presence in South Carolina "about as welcome as a Category 5 hurricane." 

South Carolina remains the state with the lowest union participation rate in country at just 2.2 percent of the total workforce. 

The IAM represents about 600,000 active and retired members across various industries in North America, including some Boeing workers.

According to a statement from an IAM chapter in Washington state, one of its members was the employee at Boeing's Everett, Wash. facility who died last month after testing positive for COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel strain of the coronavirus. 

That plant, as well as another in Washington state, a site in the Philadephia area and, as of Wednesday, the Dreamliner factory in North Charelston, have since halted production amid the ongoing pandemic. 

The closures, which are in effect "until further notice," have idled thousands of workers. 

Employees at the North Charleston plant who are affected by the shutdown are being paid for 10 working days. If the plant is closed for longer than two weeks, those workers will need to tap into their paid time off, vacation or sick time, and may be able to apply for unemployment benefits. 

Reach Emily Williams at 843-607-0894. Follow her on Twitter @emilye_williams.

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