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Labor union claims improper surveillance of Boeing workers in North Charleston

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Boeing flight line (copy) (copy)

Commercial planes are lined up along the flight line at Boeing Co.'s 787 Dreamliner assembly campus in North Charleston. A labor union that won an election to represent flight-line workers says Boeing is spying on employees. Staff/David Wren/File

The labor union that won an election at Boeing Co.'s North Charleston campus is alleging the aerospace giant is spying on the flight-line workers it represents.

The International Association of Machinists filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board accusing Boeing of improper surveillance, including installing cameras and radio frequency identification systems to track the movements of workers who voted for union representation in the May 31 election.

Boeing, which is challenging the election, denies the claims.

They are "simply the IAM's way of expressing frustration over the company's appeal of the micro-unit (election) decision on the flight line," spokeswoman Libba Holland said.

The NLRB has not ruled on the surveillance complaint.

The board also hasn't made a decision on Boeing's request to overturn the election. The planemaker had said the 176 flight-line workers covered by the union vote are an illegal "micro unit" — a portion of workers culled from a larger group with essentially the same duties. An NLRB regional director ruled in May that the work flight-line employees do is distinct from the rest of Boeing's assembly campus, paving the way for the election.

The IAM says Boeing started spying on flight-line workers after the vote.

"Boeing has required the flight-line workers to complete their computer work right outside of management offices, instead of conference rooms and other locations where they routinely got such work done," said Bill Haller, the union's associate general counsel.

Haller said Boeing also is "positioning managers inside the stalls of flight-line workers that show heavy support for the union, to watch them while they work without doing the same to employees in other stalls."

The surveillance also includes recently installed technology in locations "where they wouldn't be tracking anything other than employee movement," he said.

Holland said Boeing will cooperate with the NLRB in its review of the allegations, but the company's main focus is "on meeting our customers' commitments and providing a safe and innovative environment for our teammates."

The surveillance claims are among nine complaints the IAM has filed against Boeing since the election. Those complaints include: allegations that Boeing refuses to negotiate a contract for flight-line workers; changes work rules for union supporters; and violates workers' Weingarten Rights, which is the right to have a union representative present during discussions with management.

The challenged election has been politically charged, with members from both houses of Congress sending letters to Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg asking the company to recognize the IAM in North Charleston. South Carolina's delegation sent its own letter supporting Boeing's appeal of the vote, and governors from four states — including South Carolina — have filed documents with the NLRB on the aerospace firm's behalf.

Flight-line workers in North Charleston contacted the IAM about a year ago, saying they had concerns about unwarranted and arbitrary changes to work rules, threatened layoffs and mandatory overtime on weekends. Flight-line workers voted 104-65 in favor of union representation.

The IAM — which lost a vote last year to represent all maintenance and production workers at Boeing's North Charleston facilities — represents about 35,000 Boeing workers, mostly on the West Coast.

Boeing is one of the Charleston region's largest employers, with about 6,800 workers and contractors. In addition to its Dreamliner plant, the company has a research campus and sites that design and build engine parts for the 737 MAX and interior parts for 787 cabins.

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

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