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Dreamliner commercial planes are parked on the flight line at Boeing Co.'s North Charleston campus. Boeing is asking the National Labor Relations Board to review a ruling that let flight line workers vote for representation by the International Association of Machinists union. File/Staff

Gov. Henry McMaster and the South Carolina Attorney General's office are jumping into the middle of an organized labor dispute at Boeing Co.'s North Charleston campus, calling flight line workers' decision to join a union a threat to the state's economy.

Robert Cook, solicitor general in the attorney general's office, filed a document last week with the National Labor Relations Board supporting Boeing in its effort to overturn a ruling that let flight line workers vote on joining the International Association of Machinists union.

McMaster was joined by governors in Maine, Kentucky and Mississipi who filed a separate document this week supporting Boeing's request. 

The filings show how politicized private-sector union votes have become in many states — particularly in the South — as they compete for high-profile manufacturing jobs. Boeing chose South Carolina for its second 787 Dreamliner assembly campus, in part, because the state has the lowest percentage of union workers nationwide.

"It has been increasingly common for conservative politicians at the state level to interfere in private-sector labor relations issues," said Sue Schurman, a labor and employment expert at Rutgers University.

Schurman said many politicians see organized labor as "an impediment to their policy agenda" and, while she's never heard of an attorney general intervening in a case, "I do not find it surprising."

Bill Haller, the IAM's general counsel, said this is the first time the union has encountered opposition from state government officials in labor board matters.

"It is very unusual," Haller said.

But Robert Kittle, spokesman for Attorney General Alan Wilson, said the law enforcement agency supports Boeing and South Carolina's right-to-work laws, which prohibit mandatory union membership as a condition of employment.

"South Carolina is a haven for the location of new companies because of our strong right-to-work laws," Kittle said. Just 2.6 percent of South Carolina workers belong to a union, the lowest ratio in the country.

The filings by McMaster and the attorney general's office are known as amicus briefs — documents presented by someone who's not a party to a case but who has relevant information that a judge or, in this case, board member might want to consider before making a ruling.

Boeing flight line illustration (copy)

Boeing Co. says a photo illustration on its Facebook page is meant to show the division it thinks the International Association of Machinists is trying to create between flight line and assembly building employees at the 787 Dreamliner campus in North Charleston campus. Flight line workers voted in May for union representation. Provided/Boeing South Carolina

In his filing, Cook echoes Boeing's contention that an NLRB regional director failed to follow agency precedent when he ruled that flight line workers are a distinct group separate from the rest of the assembly plant and eligible to vote for union representation. Boeing says the flight line workers are part of a larger, highly integrated workforce.

The flight line workers voted 104-65 in May to join the IAM, but Boeing has refused to negotiate with the union until its request for a review is settled. The workers are responsible for making sure planes are safe for commercial flights.

Cook, in the filing, repeats Boeing's claim that the union decision "is of the highest magnitude to South Carolina’s economy" and the nation's economic well-being.

"Thanks to its able workforce, one of the finest technical college systems in the country, as well as its very strong and strictly enforced right-to-work laws, South Carolina has been able to attract some of the leading manufacturing companies in the world," Cook said in the filing. "As a result, the state's economy has grown by leaps and bounds in the last several decades."

Lawyers with the Fisher & Phillips firm in Columbia, who wrote McMaster's document, said in their filing that South Carolina "has largely completed its long road to economic recovery" following the Great Recession.

"Today, South Carolinians are proudly back to work with South Carolina continuing to enjoy the proud reputation of a thriving and prosperous right-to-work state culture," the document states.

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The IAM says the filings "conjure up countless (economic) horrors" without any factual basis and that the regional director included overwhelming evidence in his ruling that the flight line employees are distinct from the rest of Boeing's workforce. 

"It frankly strains credulity that the obligation to bargain with the IAM ... will result in the parade of horribles described" in the filings, said IAM lawyer Matthew Clash-Drexler.

The amicus briefs are among six filed on Boeing's behalf. The others have been filed by coalitions of pro-business groups, such as the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce and the South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance.

Clash-Drexler said in a filing that the amicus briefs simply repeat Boeing's claims — adding "only sound, fury and repetition, signifying nothing," he stated — and should be disregarded by the board.

The federal labor board has not said whether it will consider Boeing's request for a review of the regional director's decision.

South Carolina politicians have regularly injected themselves into union issues at Boeing ever since the Chicago-based company announced in 2009 that it would locate in North Charleston. Former Gov. Nikki Haley, for example, spoke against the IAM during a State of the State speech and recorded an anti-union radio commercial for Boeing that aired in 2015 when the IAM filed its first petition for a union election at the site.

More recently, McMaster called the IAM's presence "about as welcome as a Category 5 hurricane," adding in May that "we aren’t going to let out-of-state labor unions ruin the wonderful working environment in our state."

Politicians in other states have also boarded the anti-union bandwagon. In Tennessee, Gov. Bill Haslam and other politicians warned that a union victory in 2014 could cause Volkswagen to abandon plans for a $600 million expansion in that state, according to The Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis. The union lost that election and VW went ahead with the expansion.

The flight line vote was the third time the IAM attempted to organize Boeing workers in North Charleston. The first, in 2015, ended when the union withdrew its petition days before a scheduled election. Last year, roughly 3,000 workers throughout the company’s manufacturing campus overwhelmingly rejected union representation.

Boeing is one of the Charleston region’s largest employers, with about 6,800 workers and contractors. In addition to its Dreamliner facility, 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_