The National Labor Relations Board has accused Boeing of retaliating against its union workers by setting up a new non-union factory in South Carolina. The NLRB says in doing so, Boeing broke federal labor law.
The complaint has outraged some members of Congress, who have reacted by trying to cut funding for the NLRB.
The case has been a hot political topic for weeks, but on Tuesday the action moves into a Seattle courtroom. The NLRB is bringing the complaint before one of its own administrative law judges. Any appeals could eventually get to the federal courts.
As Boeing and its political and corporate allies see it, the NLRB has overstepped its authority. "Our decision to build in Charleston is essentially being second guessed by the NLRB," says Boeing spokesman Tim Neale. "It really does get down to fundamental rights about whether a company that has a unionized work force can expand to a right-to-work state or not. That's the issue here."
In right-to-work states such as South Carolina, employees are not required to join unions, even if workers at that company have approved one, and unions in those states are usually very weak.
Tom Wroblewski, president of the Seattle area machinists union says this case isn't about where Boeing builds its factories, "This is all about breaking the law."
Since the 1930s, workers have had the right under federal law to join unions, engage in collective bargaining and go on strike. The law says employers cannot discriminate against union workers, and can't retaliate against them for striking.
The NLRB says Boeing did those things when it chose South Carolina over Washington state for its second 787 production line.
In 2005 and again in 2008, Boeing machinists went on strike. Senior company executives like Jim Albaugh, who heads Boeing Commercial Airplanes, cited those strikes and what they called "the need for production stability" as a major factor in deciding to locate its new factory in a non-union stronghold.
Here's what Albaugh told the Seattle Times about that decision: "But again, the overriding factor was not the business climate, and it was not the wages we're paying people today. It was that we can't afford to have a work stoppage every 3 years."
To the NLRB's top lawyer Lafe Solomon, that comment sounded like Boeing was retaliating against its workers for striking. Solomon tried to get Boeing and its machinists union to resolve their dispute, but when the effort failed, Solomon says, "I felt I had no choice but to issue the complaint. I took an oath of office to uphold the National Labor Relations Act, and that's what I'm doing to the best of my ability."
Beyond the complaint itself, the remedy being proposed has enraged Boeing and its friends. Although the the new plant — the size of 10 football fields — has already opened and hundreds of workers have been hired, the NLRB wants Boeing to move those production jobs back to unionized workers in Washington state.
James Gregory, a labor scholar at the University of Washington, says he was surprised the NLRB went after Boeing.
"It is a brand new expression of the NLRB's willingness to once again really try to enforce the law and we just haven't seen this in a long time."
The agency's new stance has prompted Boeing and its supporters to challenge the NLRB's authority and its decision-making process. They've made unprecedented requests for documents and some supporters have even called the NLRB's action un-American.
All of this makes David Campbell, a lawyer for the Machinists Union, bristle.
He says, "Boeing has engaged in what I view as a really outrageous campaign to use political power and bullying tactics to try to stop a law enforcement case because it knows it's going to lose this case on the well-settled law."
Boeing has called the NLRB charges frivolous and says the law is on its side.
In the hearing, NLRB lawyers act as prosecutors, with an administrative law judge from the agency presiding. Most observers think Boeing will lose the case within the NLRB. But Boeing has vowed to appeal and the company is likely to fare much better in the federal courts.