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Federal labor board in Boeing SC ruling exceeded authority, according to union lawsuit

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The International Association of Machinists filed a lawsuit Thursday against the National Labor Relations Board, saying the federal agency exceeded its authority in ruling a union vote at Boeing Co.'s 787 Dreamliner campus in North Charleston was invalid. File/AP

The union that won an election to represent flight-line workers at Boeing Co.'s North Charleston campus says the National Labor Relations Board overstepped its authority by overturning the vote, and it wants a judge to uphold the workers' decision.

The International Association of Machinists said in a lawsuit filed Thursday that the NLRB used contradictory logic, ignored standards required by federal law and adopted new guidelines designed to disqualify flight-line workers from organizing.

The union is asking a judge to void the board's Sept. 9 ruling that North Charleston flight-line workers don't have a right as their own group to join a union.

An NLRB spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Charleston. No hearing date has been scheduled.

If the IAM is successful, the union would be allowed to represent flight-line workers at the plant that builds 787 Dreamliner jets.

Boeing, which is not a party to the lawsuit, called the legal action "yet another unfortunate and desperate attempt by the IAM to interject themselves into Boeing South Carolina and divide our teammates."

"The National Labor Relations Board has already decided this matter based on well-established law, precedent and the facts," Boeing said. "We remain highly confident in its ruling."

The lawsuit alleges the labor board contradicted itself by ruling the two types of workers who make up the flight-line — technicians and inspectors — have too little in common to form a bargaining unit, despite acknowledging their "nearly identical terms and conditions of employment" and their inclusion under the same job classification. 

The board then said the flight-line workers have too much in common with the rest of the plant's roughly 2,700 production and maintenance staff to qualify as a separate bargaining unit.

If the flight-line workers have common interests with the rest of the plant, the lawsuit states, they must have common interests with each other as well.

While reaching the contradictory conclusion, according to the lawsuit, the board also failed to consider standards mandated by the National Labor Relations Act that would have given flight-line workers the right to organize.

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The board's ruling also overturned an earlier decision by the labor agency's regional director who said the flight-line workers are a proper bargaining unit.

Labor unions typically have little recourse when the NLRB rules against them, and the IAM can't appeal the Boeing decision directly. However, a 1958 Supreme Court ruling gives unions the right to go to court if they feel the labor board acted outside of its legal authority in reaching a decision.

In addition to the labor board, the IAM's lawsuit names as defendants the individual members: John Ring, Marvin Kaplan, William Emanuel and Lauren McFerran. The board voted 3-1 to overturn the North Charleston union vote. McFerran dissented.

Charleston lawyer Armand Derfner is representing the IAM along with the union's legal team.

The lawsuit is the latest in the IAM's nearly two-year struggle to represent Boeing's flight-line workers. The union filed a petition for an election in March 2018 and a majority of about 178 flight line workers voted two months later to join the union, setting up a lengthy appeal process. Boeing had refused to negotiate with the IAM while the NLRB’s decision was pending.

In the months after the union vote, the North Charleston plant has come under fire for allegations of shoddy production and safety lapses blamed on Boeing’s decision to eliminate quality inspectors while increasing the number of planes built each month.

The union battle has been seen as an important indicator of organized labor’s ability to establish an industrial foothold in the South. The Palmetto State’s right-to-work laws hamstring a union’s ability to collect dues to support its operations and South Carolina has the lowest number of union workers at 2.7 percent of the labor force.

That played a key role in Boeing's decision in 2009 to built a Dreamliner plant in North Charleston — the aerospace giant's only airplane manufacturing site in the South. Most of Boeing's workers on the West Coast are represented by unions, including about 33,000 who belong to the IAM.

The IAM has tried twice to organize the Dreamliner plant's entire workforce. The union withdrew its petition for an election in 2015 and workers voted overwhelmingly against union representation in 2017. The IAM has said it plans to continue efforts to organize maintenance and production workers at the site.

In addition to the Dreamliner plant, Boeing — one of the Charleston region’s largest employers, with about 6,800 workers and contractors — also has North Charleston sites that design and build engine parts, build cabin parts for the Dreamliner and conduct aerospace research.

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

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