First Hugo, now Atlanta-area floods

Rhonda Huggins Klein

WASHINGTON — Documents released Friday by a union in a high-profile labor dispute with Boeing Co. suggested the aerospace giant opened a new plant in South Carolina partly to escape its labor problems in Washington state.

The Machinists union said the documents bolster the National Labor Relations Board’s lawsuit accusing the company of retaliating against unions in Washington state by opening a second production line for its 787 aircraft in North Charleston.

The internal documents — presented to Boeing’s board of directors in 2009 — show Boeing officials believed opening the South Carolina plant was the highest-risk option they studied with the highest likelihood of failure.

But the documents also say the South Carolina plan, dubbed “Project Gemini,” would help in “rebalancing an unbalanced and uncompetitive labor relationship.”

One document listing rationale supporting the South Carolina plan said it “creates a non-union, competitive labor choice” and “lowers labor costs and avoids the current hostage situation,” an apparent reference to past strikes at plants in Washington, Oregon and Kansas. The same document also lists other positive reasons for choosing South Carolina, including logistical efficiency, geographic diversity and gaining political support in a key state.

“The Project Gemini documents prove what we’ve suspected all along — that Boeing moved to Charleston to punish our members for exercising their union rights,” said Connie Kelliher, a spokeswoman for the union’s District 751.

A Boeing spokesman had no immediate comment. Boeing has denied it opened the new plant to retaliate against the union, saying it did so for valid economic reasons.

The latest documents were obtained as part of the government’s lawsuit now pending before an administrative law judge in Seattle.

The NLRB contends that Boeing opened the second line in right-to-work South Carolina to punish union workers in Washington state over a series of costly strikes. NLRB assistant general counsel Lafe Solomon wants Boeing to move the new line to Washington state.

It was already known that Boeing executives had made public comments that criticized union activity and mentioned it as a reason to invest in South Carolina. Boeing officials said those comments were twisted out of context and that just because the company complained about the union didn’t necessarily mean those issues drove the decision to open a new line in South Carolina.

Boeing officials say granting the government relief would force it to close a $1 billion plant and lay off more than a thousand South Carolina workers. The company says the government has no legal right to interfere with business decisions about where to locate production.

The case has become an issue in the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination and GOP lawmakers have used the issue to bash the Obama administration’s economic policies.