4:18pm

Thu June 9, 2011
Business

Union Workers Cry Foul Over New S.C. Boeing Plant

Originally published on Thu June 9, 2011 10:11 pm

A new Boeing plant in South Carolina is the subject of a legal battle that's playing out across the South and in Congress.

The controversy is over Boeing's decision to assemble its fuel-efficient 787 Dreamliner in nonunion South Carolina instead of in Washington state, where it has built planes for decades.

The company says South Carolina offered a lot of incentives to get the plant, but the union says Boeing broke the law and violated workers' rights.

Plant Timeline Not Affected

Boeing's enormous assembly plant near the airport in North Charleston is almost finished. Inside, workers are installing equipment where new employees will build the Dreamliner.

Candy Eslinger, a spokeswoman for Boeing in South Carolina, says she can't talk specifically about the union complaint. But she says it hasn't changed anything at the plant.

"Our plans are still going forward," Eslinger says. "We will be starting production here in July of 2011 and we'll deliver our first airplane out of South Carolina in 2012."

The long-term plan is to produce three planes a month in South Carolina and seven in Washington state. Boeing spokesman Tim Neale says the company negotiated with the union, but failed.

"We were looking to make a new investment and new production capacity," Neale says. "Our current contract acknowledges our right to locate work elsewhere and that's what we chose to do in this case, because we just couldn't get the terms from them that we needed."

Retaliation Move?

But the machinists union says it's not that simple. The union says Boeing built the plant in nonunion South Carolina to retaliate against Washington workers for previous strikes, and it says doing so is a violation of federal labor law. The machinists turned to the National Labor Relations Board, which investigates labor disputes.

In April, the top lawyer for the NLRB issued a formal complaint against Boeing. Soon after, the issue erupted in the nation's capital. Republican leaders introduced federal legislation and began a campaign against the machinists union. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham was one of them.

"Nobody's pay was cut. Nobody's benefits were reduced because they moved to South Carolina, so this complaint is just frivolous," Graham said in a Senate floor speech.

The NLRB says all of Boeing's work on the Dreamliner should be done in Washington state. But Graham and others say no one should be able to tell a company where it can do business.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican, criticized the union's complaint. "It really is very offensive," she said on Fox News. "It's an assault on everything that we know to be American and they have to stop this."

But David Campbell, an attorney representing the union, says standing up for workers is anything but un-American.

"In America, people have collective bargaining rights and in America, you don't settle judicial law enforcement cases in politics. You settle them in the courts and that's what Boeing should be doing here," Campbell says.

'It's About Being Fair And Honest'

In North Charleston — where the Boeing plant is providing more than 1,000 nonunion jobs — some residents at a local discount store say they're not sure what to think.

"We need the work here too in Charleston but it's about being fair and being honest," says Anthony Manuel, a member of the longshoremen's union. "If you did them wrong how we feel if you gonna do us wrong here in Charleston too."

But Brandy Hall says the jobs will really help Charleston, which struggled after the naval base was closed in 1996. She's not sure the union should complain.

"They're not entirely moving the plant so they still do have an economy up there based around that and it's just that I'm not sure I see where the issue is, to tell you the truth," she says.

There's a hearing in Seattle on June 14 about the legal issues, but it's not likely to resolve the matter. Boeing officials say if they lose, they'll appeal to the federal courts, where the case could remain for years.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

A new Boeing plant is creating controversy from Washington state to Washington, D.C. Boeing decided to build a new plant for its 787 Dreamliner, not in Washington state, where it's built planes for decades, but in South Carolina. There, workers would not have to be unionized. The company says its decision was a smart business move. Union workers say Boeing is breaking the law.

NPR's Kathy Lohr explains.

KATHY LOHR: Boeing's enormous assembly plant near the airport in North Charleston is almost finished. Inside, workers are installing equipment, what look giant blue and orange platforms where new employees will build the Dreamliner.

(Soundbite of machinery)

Ms. CANDY ESLINGER (Spokeswoman, Boeing, South Carolina): Right now it's a big open space. We have the tooling that we're starting to put place that we need for airplane production. So those will actually hold the airplane pieces as we put the airplanes together.

LOHR: Candy Eslinger is a spokeswoman for Boeing in South Carolina. She says she can't talk specifically about the union complaint, but Eslinger says it hasn't changed anything at the plant.

Ms. ESLINGER: Our plans are still going forward. We will be starting production here in July of 2011 and we'll deliver our first airplane out of South Carolina in 2012.

LOHR: The long-term plan is to produce three planes a month here and seven in Washington state. Boeing spokesman Tim Neale says the company negotiated with the union, but failed.

Mr. TIM NEALE (Spokesman, Boeing): We were looking to make a new investment and new production capacity. Our current contract acknowledges our right to locate work elsewhere. And that's what we chose to do in this case because we just couldn't get the terms from them that we needed.

LOHR: But the Machinists Union says it's not that simple. The union says Boeing built the plant in non-union South Carolina to retaliate against Washington workers for previous strikes. And the union says that's a violation of federal labor law. So the machinists turned to the National Labor Relations Board, which investigates labor disputes.

In April, the top lawyer for the NLRB issued a formal complaint against Boeing. Soon after, the issue erupted in the nation's capitol. GOP leaders introduced new federal legislation and began a campaign against the machinists union. Here's South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham on the Senate floor.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): Nobody's pay was cut, nobody's benefits were reduced because they moved to South Carolina. So this complaint is just frivolous. It is motivated by all the wrong reasons.

LOHR: The NLRB says all of Boeing's work on the Dreamliner should be done in Washington state. But Graham and others say no one should be able to tell a company where they can do business.

South Carolina Republican Governor Nikki Haley criticized the union's complaint on Fox News.

Governor NIKKI HALEY (Republican, South Carolina): It really is very offensive. It's an assault on everything that we know to be American, and they have to stop this.

LOHR: But David Campbell, an attorney representing the Machinists Union, says standing up for workers is anything but un-American.

Mr. DAVID CAMPBELL (Attorney): In America, people have collective bargaining rights. And in America, you don't settle judicial law enforcement cases in politics. You settle them in the courts, and that's what Boeing should be doing here.

LOHR: Back in North Charleston, where the Boeing plant is providing more than 1,000 non-union jobs, some residents at a local discount store say they're not sure what to think. Anthony Manuel is a member of the longshoremen's union.

Mr. ANTHONY MANUEL: We need the work here, too, you know, in Charleston, you know. But, I mean, it's about being fair and being honest. You know, if you did them wrong, how we feel if you going to do us wrong here in Charleston, too?

LOHR: But Brandy Hall says the jobs will really help Charleston, which struggled after the naval base was closed in 1996. And she's not sure the union should complain.

Ms. BRANDY HALL: They're not entirely moving the plant. So they still do have an economy up there based around that. And it's just that I don't - I'm not sure I see what the issue is, to tell you the truth.

LOHR: There's a hearing in Seattle on the legal issues next week, but it's not likely to resolve the matter. Boeing officials say if they lose, they'll appeal to the federal courts, where the case could remain for years.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Charleston, South Carolina. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.