Union vote likely to resolve Boeing lawsuit

A Boeing Co. worker walks into the Machinists Union hall Wednesday in Renton, Wash. Boeing employees were voting Wednesday on a new four-year labor contract that would keep production of a new version of the 737 airplane in Washington state and give Boeing years of stable union relations.

The National Labor Relations Board case against Boeing could be over by the weekend.

That was the word from the federal agency as the membership of Boeing's biggest union voted on a proposed grand bargain with the airframer.

Ratification of the four-year contract extension late Wednesday by a roughly 3-1 ratio was the first step toward the NLRB dropping its lawsuit against the company. The NLRB alleged that building a 787 Dreamliner assembly plant in North Charleston -- in right-to-work South Carolina -- violated labor laws. The remaining steps, involving an NLRB legal proceeding in Seattle, could follow quickly.

"Basically, it could happen as soon as Friday, but we don't know at this point," said NLRB spokeswoman Nancy Cleeland. "The process could all take place in a matter of days."

Such a quick end to the controversial legal dispute scarcely could have been imagined until recently. There were worries the case, which set off a political firestorm when it was filed in April, would drag on for years and only be resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Then, on Nov. 30, Boeing and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers announced they had reached a sweeping deal. The result of more than a month of secret negotiations, the proposal guaranteed the newest iteration of the 737, the MAX, would be built in Renton, Wash., and granted the union membership 2 percent annual raises and a $5,000 signing bonus in exchange for paying more for health care.

Though not an explicit provision in the contract, the Seattle union president said that day, if the contract were ratified on Wednesday, he would tell the NLRB the machinists' grievances against Boeing were resolved.

While several South Carolina politicians continued to criticize the NLRB, others expressed relief at the amicable resolution.

Ellen Dannin, a former NLRB attorney who spoke to the College of Charleston about the case in late October, said reaching a deal through collective bargaining is "the way it should be."

"People acted like adults and decided to settle the problem," Dannin, now a law professor at Penn State, said this week. "They'll be the better for it."

Meanwhile, the affected machinists, more than 30,000 workers between Washington, Oregon and Kansas, considered whether they should accept the unusual agreement.

"This isn't the normal way we come to a contract agreement with Boeing, so people had a lot of questions about what is going on and what is the offer going to mean for me and my family," Bryan Corliss, spokesman for IAM District 751, said.

Starting early Wednesday, the machinists walked into union halls or alternative polling places and deposited the light-blue index cards on which they had marked the box next to "I ACCEPT the Contract" or "I REJECT the Contract."

He described the mood at the Seattle union hall as "kind of mellow" and "pretty low-key."

"It's like they were going to vote on a local school bond issue or something like that," Corliss said. "The difference is we have TV trucks in the parking lot."

When all the ballots were counted, the landmark deal went into effect.

On the same day the machinists voted on a deal to ensure they will continue building planes through 2016, one of their products, a flight-test Dreamliner, took a swooping tour of South Carolina.

The plane ZA002 took off from North Charleston around 11 a.m. and made a series of approaches, without landing, at Myrtle Beach, Columbia and Greenville-Spartanburg airports before returning the Charleston about two hours later. It was supposed to fly Tuesday but then needed an unspecified part, according to a Boeing South Carolina spokeswoman.

Reach Brendan Kearney at 937-5906 and follow him on Twitter at @kearney_brendan.