Lawyers for Boeing Co. and the labor union that wants to represent the planemaker's flight line workers in North Charleston stated their cases Tuesday during a hearing to determine whether the employees will be allowed to vote on representation.
Sally Cline, an officer with the National Labor Relations Board, heard opening statements and reviewed documents from the aerospace giant and the International Association of Machinists union during the first day of a hearing in Charleston that's expected to last several days.
At issue is whether the 178 Boeing employees who work as flight readiness technicians and inspectors at the 787 Dreamliner plant are an appropriate unit for collective bargaining under federal law. A decision isn't expected for at least several weeks as the NLRB's regional office in Atlanta considers the evidence and testimony.
Boeing lawyer Richard Hankins told Cline 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. Hankins said the flight line employees share the same benefit plans, follow the same rules and procedures and — in some cases — do the same jobs as other Boeing production workers.
"It is an arbitrary unit that is not appropriate for collective bargaining," Hankins said.
Boeing says the only group of employees that should be eligible to vote on IAM representation is the full production staff of about 3,000 people. Last year, those production workers rejected the IAM by a 3-to-1 vote.
Matthew Clash-Drexler, a lawyer for the union, said the flight line workers have a unique set of skills, tasks, licensing requirements and training that make them eligible to stand alone in a labor vote. He said the workers who get planes ready for test flights, perform inspections and respond to issues raised by pilots are considered a distinct group by Boeing's human resources documents and are given special bonuses, training and even clothing not available to production workers.
"Only after the plane leaves the (final assembly) building does their work begin," Clash-Drexler said. "Rather than building the plane, their work is to make the plane airworthy and make sure it is safe for flight."
The IAM filed a petition to represent the flight line employees on March 5, saying the workers contacted the union "with serious concerns over arbitrary management decisions over overtime, bonuses and work rules," according to spokesman Jonathan Battaglia.
Joan Robinson-Berry called the petition "an attempt to isolate our flight line teammates."
Boeing South Carolina changed the cover photo on its Facebook page to show an illustration of a barrier separating the flight line from the main assembly building in North Charleston. The company also has started an anti-union advertising campaign.
Federal law states that a collective bargaining unit must be made up of employees who have a "community of interest," which means similar skills, duties, supervisory structure, wages, employment conditions and other factors. The NLRB doesn't have to determine that Boeing's flight line workers are the best possible bargaining unit, only that they are an appropriate group for union representation.
The NLRB's board has wide discretion in determining what is and isn't an appropriate group, and each petition is judged on a case-by-case basis.
If the board rules in favor of the IAM, a secret-ballot vote will be scheduled for only the flight line workers. If the board rules in favor of Boeing, it will be the IAM's third defeat at the site, following last year's rejection and an earlier petition the IAM withdrew when it became clear the union didn't have the support it needed.
The IAM is the nation's largest aerospace union, representing about 600,000 members at companies including Lockheed Martin, General Electric and United Technologies. The union represents more than 35,000 Boeing employees at 24 locations nationwide.