787-10 Dreamliner in assembly at North charleston (copy) (copy) (copy)

The National Labor Relations Board said in a 3-to-1 decision Monday that flight-line workers at Boeing Co.'s North Charleston campus can't join the International Association of Machinists union as a group separate from the rest of the plant's workers. David Wren/Staff/File

The National Labor Relations Board on Monday ruled that flight-line workers at Boeing Co.'s North Charleston plant can't join the International Association of Machinists union as their own separate group.

The board, in a 3-to-1 vote, said the proposed flight-line bargaining unit of just two job descriptions did not meet federal standards because the workers aren't distinct from the site's overall workforce of about 2,700 maintenance and production workers.

The decision overturns an earlier ruling by the board's regional director in Atlanta.

"We are pleased that the board agreed that the IAM's attempt to isolate our flight-line teammates from the rest of the site is prohibited by federal law," Brad Zaback, vice president of Boeing's 787 program, said in a written statement.

Zaback said Boeing will move forward to "work with our teammates directly, to meet tomorrow's challenges and continue the site’s great work to build the world’s most advanced airplanes."

IAM spokesman DeLane Adams called the board's decision "unprincipled" and added it will not stop the union's organizing campaign at Boeing's North Charleston plant.

"We will not relent or back down," Adams said in a written statement. "This decision is irresponsible and reckless. American workers are under attack from those who value corporations over working families. We stand with the flight line and all workers at Boeing South Carolina and justice will prevail when their voices are recognized."

The IAM filed a petition for an election in March 2018 and a majority of about 178 flight line workers voted two months later to join the IAM, setting up a lengthy appeal process. Boeing had refused to negotiate with the IAM while the NLRB's decision was pending.

The aerospace giant argued that the flight-line readiness technicians and inspectors who voted to join the IAM must be included in the larger community of workers at the plant, where Boeing builds its 787 Dreamliner commercial jet.

That larger community of Boeing employees voted overwhelmingly in 2017 not to join the IAM, which has tried for years to organize the plant's workers. The IAM already represents about 35,000 Boeing workers at the planemaker's plants in Washington state.

NLRB Chairman John Ring was joined by board members Marvin Kaplan and William Emanuel in the majority opinion. All three were appointed to the board by President Donald Trump.

Board member Laura McFerran dissented, saying she found the flight-line unit appropriate for collective bargaining and calling the majority opinion "a denial of these workers’ fundamental rights." McFerran was appointed to the board by former President Barack Obama. 

In the months after the union vote, the North Charleston plant has come under fire for allegations of shoddy production and safety lapses blamed on Boeing's decision to eliminate quality inspectors while increasing the number of planes built each month.

Some of the plant's customers also complain of "unacceptable" production mistakes and poor quality in internal Boeing surveys obtained by The Post and Courier.

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IAM supporters on the flight line also said Boeing spied on them and targeted them for disciplinary action while the union decision dragged on.

The union battle that played out for 18 months in North Charleston has been seen as an important indicator of organized labor’s ability to establish an industrial foothold in the South. The Palmetto State’s labor laws hamstring a union’s ability to collect dues to support its operations and South Carolina is tied with North Carolina for the fewest union workers at 2.7 percent of the workforce.  

The effort to bring a union to the Dreamliner plant had politicians across the spectrum speaking out. Democrats and Independents, including presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, called on Boeing to recognize the union and negotiate a contract. Republicans offered support for Boeing, including Gov. Henry McMaster who called the IAM’s presence "about as welcome as a Category 5 hurricane.

Boeing decided in 2009 to open a manufacturing campus in North Charleston — its first in the South — in part to avoid the union activity that’s common at its West Coast locations, according to news reports.

Boeing builds the 787 Dreamliner commercial plane next to Charleston International Airport. The site is the only place that builds the 787-10, the largest and newest Dreamliner model. It also builds other wide-body Dreamliner variants along with a sister plant in Everett, Wash.

Boeing — one of the Charleston region’s largest employers, with about 7,300 workers and contractors — also has North Charleston sites that design and build engine parts, build cabin parts for the Dreamliner and conduct aerospace research.

 

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