File // Leroy Burnell // The Post and Courier

The National Labor Relations Board is seeking a court order that would require Boeing to maintain its second 787 assembly line in the Pacific Northwest, not at the plant going up in North Charleston.

Boeing Co.'s $750 million aircraft plant in North Charleston is at the heart of a growing labor rift pitting the aerospace giant against one of its biggest unions and now a federal agency.

The National Labor Relations Board sued the company Wednesday, saying Boeing shifted some of its 787 Dreamliner production to South Carolina partly to retaliate against the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers for past strikes in Washington state.

The NLRB is seeking a court order that would require Boeing to maintain its second 787 assembly line in the Pacific Northwest, an IAMAW stronghold. If successful, that could stop Boeing from building the plane in North Charleston.

Boeing said Thursday that it plans to "vigorously contest" the lawsuit. A hearing has been scheduled for June 14 in Seattle.

"This claim is legally frivolous and represents a radical departure from both NLRB and Supreme Court precedent," said J. Michael Luttig, Boeing's general counsel.

The lawsuit alleges that the company engaged in unfair labor practices in 2009 when it picked Charleston International Airport as the site of its second 787 assembly plant rather than expand its existing, unionized Dreamliner factory in Everett, Wash.

Employees at the North Charleston plant, which is scheduled to open this summer and manufacture three of the jets a month by 2013, are not represented by a union.

The NLRB said its lawsuit is limited to 787 production, and that it is not seeking to block other airplanes from being made at the site.

The federal agency's court filing stems from a complaint filed in March 2010 by the IAMAW, which engaged in five strikes against Boeing between 1977 and 2008. The NLRB said its investigation found "reasonable cause" to believe the company violated two sections of the National Labor Relations Act.

Specifically, Boeing officials had made "coercive statements" to its unionized employees starting in 2009 that the company would shift or had shifted production work away from the Puget Sound area because of labor walkouts, the federal agency said.

According to the lawsuit, Boeing did so out of "a desire to retaliate for past strikes and chill future strike activity."

"A worker's right to strike is a fundamental right guaranteed by the National Labor Relations Act," NLRB acting general counsel Lafe Solomon said in statement Wednesday. "We also recognize the rights of employers to make business decisions based on their economic interests, but they must do so within the law."

Solomon said he has encouraged the union and Boeing to settle their differences out of court, "and my door remains open to that possibility."

Boeing said it had met with IAMAW officials about keeping the second 787 line in the Puget Sound area but was unable to strike a deal.

It also said it had "every right" under federal law and its collective bargaining agreement with the union to build additional U.S. production capacity outside of its longtime manufacturing base in Washington state.

"Boeing has made it clear that none of the production jobs created in South Carolina has come at the expense of jobs in Puget Sound and that not a single union member has been adversely affected," the company said.

"In fact, IAM employment in Puget Sound has increased by approximately 2,000 workers since the decision to expand in South Carolina was made in October 2009."

Boeing also was critical of the timing of the lawsuit, which was filed nearly a year and a half after the North Charleston investment was announced.

The NLRB complaint drew harsh responses from South Carolina elected officials.

"This is one of the worst examples of unelected bureaucrats doing the bidding of special interest groups that I've ever seen," U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican, said in a statement. "In this case, the NLRB is doing the bidding of the unions at great cost to South Carolina and our nation's economy."

Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, who is being sued separately by the IAMAW for vowing to keep unions out of the Boeing plant, called the labor organization "meddlesome" and "self-serving."

"This bullying will not be tolerated in South Carolina," Haley said in prepared remarks.

The IAMAW said that before Boeing announced its North Charleston plant, it offered the company an "unprecedented 11-year agreement" that would have given the company the "labor peace" it claimed it needed.

Since then, it said, Boeing "hasn't been willing to have any serious conversations about its future in Puget Sound."

"I'm ready to have that conversation," said Tom Wroblewski, president of union's District Lodge 751 in Seattle. "We need to sit down and talk about our shared future, and what both sides need to be successful long-term. That kind of conversation is what's in the best interest of our company, our members and our communities."