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Lawmakers from both coasts battling over Boeing's North Charleston union vote

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100 years of Boeing (copy) (copy)

Flight-line workers at Boeing Co.'s 787 Dreamliner campus in North Charleston this year voted in favor of having the International Association of Machinists represent them in collective bargaining. It was considered a small but symbolic victory for organized labor in the South. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

The politically charged union vote at Boeing Co.'s North Charleston campus is pitting federal legislators against each other, with South Carolina representatives accusing their Washington counterparts of trying to sabotage the Palmetto State's "warm business environment."

A group of 177 members of the U.S. House of Representatives sent a letter Friday to Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg calling on the aerospace giant to abandon its attempts to overturn a vote to join the International Association of Machinists by flight-line workers at the 787 Dreamliner plant.

The letter was written by Rick Larsen, a Democrat who represents the Puget Sound area where Boeing builds most of its commercial planes and operates a second Dreamliner assembly plant. The letter is signed by most of the Evergreen State delegation. 

No South Carolina legislator signed the letter. Instead, they wrote a separate missive to Muilenburg calling out the Washington state group for "inappropriate" interference.

Larsen's letter "clearly does not have the best interests in mind of South Carolina residents, employers, and the workers at the Boeing South Carolina facility in question," states the South Carolina rebuttal, which was written by Republican Jeff Duncan.

Duncan's letter was signed by all S.C. House members except for Democrat James Clyburn.

A majority of the 178 flight-line technicians at the North Charleston campus voted for union representation in May. The planemaker is contesting the election, saying an incorrect ruling by a regional director with the National Labor Relations Board allowed the vote to go forward.

The labor board is reviewing the request and the aerospace giant is refusing to negotiate with the IAM — which represents 35,000 Boeing workers worldwide — while the appeal is pending.

Larsen's letter said he and other House members are "concerned to hear Boeing is seeking to appeal the decision" and asks the company to "respect the decision of the flight-line technicians ..."

"The Boeing Company was built by the same union the flight technicians at the South Carolina plant want to join," Larsen wrote, also stating that he and his group "have seen firsthand the benefits of a unionized workforce."

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Palmetto State legislators shot back, writing: "South Carolinians do not need politicians from the other side of the country telling them what is best for them or for the employers who are increasingly calling South Carolina home due to a warm business environment."

Duncan's letter asks Muilenburg to continue fighting the union election.

"We can’t stress enough how inappropriate it is for an individual representing special interests in Washington state to attempt to interfere with employment outcomes in South Carolina," he wrote.

The dueling letters from House leaders follow a pro-union letter sent to Boeing by 23 Democratic senators in August.

Other politicians —including governors from South Carolina and three other states — and nearly 20 industry and pro-business groups have filed documents with the NLRB in support of Boeing's appeal The labor board has not said when it will rule on the matter.

"Boeing workers in South Carolina are simply asking for the same rights as any worker," Robert Martinez, the IAM's president, said in a statement. "They voted to join a union and now it is time for Boeing to respect their choice. We are ready today to negotiate a contract that is fair to Boeing management and front-line workers, just as we have for generations of machinists union members at Boeing."

Flight-line workers 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.

Boeing spokeswoman Libba Holland said the company continues to believe the flight-line workers are an improper group for union representation.

"We do not intend to recognize the IAM as the lawful representative of our teammates while the appeal is pending," she said.

Boeing has said the work that flight-line employees do is so intertwined with the rest of the facility that the small group can't be parsed out for collective bargaining. A regional director with the NLRB disagreed in May, setting up the vote.

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.

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

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