The story began before President Obama was President Obama, but his administration wrote the denouement. In September 2008, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW), the union representing workers who build 787 airplanes at Boeing's plant in the Puget Sound area of Washington, went on strike. The strike lasted eight weeks, enough time to spur Virgin Atlantic's Richard Branson to say his company considered never again trusting Boeing with a contract.
In October 2009, Boeing announced that it had decided to build a new plant to assemble more highly demanded 787 airplanes, Dreamliners, in South Carolina, a "right-to-work" state where workers aren't required to join a union. The company planned to build three Dreamliners a month in the North Charleston plant, while continuing to build seven a month at the Puget Sound plant.
Six months later, IAMAW lodged a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board that Boeing was building the new plant out of retaliation for the strikes at the Puget Sound plant. On April 20, 2011, the NLRB's general counsel Lafe Solomon filed a lawsuit against Boeing for building the South Carolina plant, seeking an order that would keep the production in Washington state. The complaint was based off Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Jim Albaugh's statement that the company built a new plant because "we cannot afford to have a work stoppage, you know, every three years." Boeing said the Charleston plant was not a retaliation against workers, pointing out that since the company announced plans for the Charleston plant in 2009, it has hired 2,000 more workers in the Puget Sound area. The company also noted that half of the 34 states where it has a presence are unionized.
When the NLRB filed the complaint, Boeing was nearing completion of the $750 million plant in Charleston and had already hired more than 1,000 employees.
In a May 5 letter to President Obama, 19 GOP senators vowed to do all in their power to block his two pending NLRB nominees because of what they deemed "unprecedented legal action" in the Boeing decision. Solomon, who was officially nominated in January and is currently "acting" counsel, must be confirmed by the Senate. Another controversial member of the board, Craig Becker, former counsel at the AFL-CIO, also needs confirmation. The Senate rejected his nomination in February 2010, but the president placed him on the board through a recess appointment.
Most NLRB disputes are resolved through settlements before going to the courts. But if the two parties in this case don't reach a settlement, an administrative law judge (an executive branch judge) will hear the case on June 14 in Seattle, Wash. Either party could appeal the judge's decision, and then the NLRB, made up of three Democrats and one Republican, would be the next court of appeal.
Then that decision could go to a federal court of appeal to be decided-and eventually to the Supreme Court if it comes to that. But an appeal reaching the federal court level may work in Boeing's favor. "The board is not given very much deference by the courts," said James Sherk, an expert on labor policy at the Heritage Foundation. And Sherk said because the board has a "weak case," he expects "Boeing is not going to give any concessions."
The South Carolina plant is still on track to spring to life in July.