LE BOURGET, France (Reuters) - A fierce debate over Boeing Co’s new non-union airplane factory in South Carolina boiled over thousands of miles away this week at the Paris Air Show, with key players swiping at one another in a battle for jobs back home.
In April, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) lodged a complaint in an administrative law court, saying that Boeing’s decision to open a 787 wide-body assembly away from its Washington state home base was meant to punish the International Association of Machinists (IAM) union for past strikes.
“This is more than about Boeing. This is about every company in America that wants to do business and wants to expand and create jobs,” South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley told Reuters.
Haley, a Republican, attended the air show to promote South Carolina -- a state unfriendly to unions -- as an aerospace manufacturing hub. Several notable aerospace companies have operations in South Carolina including Boeing, Honeywell International and Lockheed Martin.
The NLRB, a government agency that is independent but dominated by Democrats, says Boeing trampled its workers’ legal right to strike when it decided to locate the second 787 assembly plant in South Carolina.
Boeing argues the decision was not retaliatory and that the South Carolina work is new to the company, not a shift of existing work from the Seattle area in Washington state.
A hearing on the matter is underway in Seattle. Barring an agreement between Boeing, the NLRB and the IAM union, the dispute could lead to years of litigation.
Boeing’s new $750 million facility with 1,000 workers opened on June 10. The company received grants and incentives from South Carolina that could total $900 million if it employs 5,000. The 787 is scheduled to go into service in the third quarter of this year.
The company has sold more than 800 of the new planes and will produce 10 per month when its two plants will become fully operational by the end of 2013.
Tom Wroblewski, local IAM president in Seattle, also flew to Paris, as part of a Washington state contingent.
He declined to comment directly on the NLRB case because he may be called as a witness at the hearings. But he bemoaned what he described as a loss of aerospace jobs largely due to outsourcing to other states. Membership in his union’s local is down from about 42,000 in the mid-1990s to about 28,000 today.
“I don’t have any ill will toward South Carolina workers. In time, they certainly will be able to build airplanes. But I‘m going to tell you what: they’re not going to build airplanes like we build in the Puget Sound right now,” Wroblewski said.
Haley said the IAM and the NLRB have attacked Boeing on its South Carolina plant in an effort to remain relevant as union membership nationwide sags.
“Success breeds envy,” she said. “And the unions realize that we are a state where we don’t want unions, we don’t like unions and the employees don’t want to participate in unions. And I think they are trying to make an example out of us.”
The administrative law judge hearing the case in Seattle has asked the NLRB and the IAM to speak directly with Boeing to reach a settlement. They all say they want to reach a deal.
An IAM spokesman said, however, that Boeing’s only proposal -- not to lay off workers until September 2012 -- was weak.
J Michael Luttig, Boeing’s general counsel, has said he anticipates losing in the Seattle hearings, but eventually winning in appeals.
Washington Governor Chris Gregoire, also at the Paris Air Show, has found herself smack in the middle of a fight between a major employer in her state and her working-class constituents.
The Democrat, who announced this month that she would not seek re-election, said she will not publicly take a side between the two. Gregoire told Reuters in Paris she has talked with both sides -- including to Boeing Chief Executive Jim McNerney -- and has asked them to resolve the matter without litigation.
Editing by Geert De Clercq