Labor board open to helping Boeing, union

Reuters News
Posted: Jun 17, 2011 5:08 PM
Labor board open to helping Boeing, union

By Harriet McLeod

CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - A labor board is open to helping Boeing Co and union leaders settle a complaint over management's decision to site a 787 Dreamliner assembly line in non-union South Carolina.

Lafe Solomon, National Labor Relations Board acting general counsel, also told a congressional hearing on Friday that politics played no role in the decision to pursue a formal complaint against Boeing earlier this year.

Solomon testified under threat of subpoaena from the House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Republicans who lead the panel are concerned the NLRB has overstepped its legal authority.

He is prosecuting the case that has opened a new front in the emotionally charged debate about the influence of public and private labor unions, and views that companies have a right to build where they want and for whatever reasons they choose.

The NRLB began its hearings in Seattle this week on its assertion that Boeing decided to open new operations for 787 wide-body assembly in non-union South Carolina to punish the International Association of Machinists for past strikes.

The $750 million facility with 1,000 workers opened on June 10. Boeing received grants and incentives from South Carolina that could total $900 million if it employs 5,000 people.

Solomon said he tried to settle the claim and reluctantly moved ahead with the case this spring when no deal was reached. He would still like to see a compromise.

"I remain open to playing a constructive role in assisting the parties to settle this dispute without the costs and uncertainties associated with extended litigation," Solomon said.

A deal, he said, would serve the interests of both parties and promote labor peace.

"In the absence of a mutually acceptable settlement, however, both Boeing and the machinists have a legal right to present their evidence and arguments in a trial and to have those issues be decided by the board and federal courts," Solomon said.

Sources close to the matter have said a quick settlement was unlikely, and Boeing has asked the administrative law judge in Seattle to dismiss the matter.

Boeing shares closed up 15 cents at $74.16 on the New York Stock Exchange.

Friday's hearing held in a local government hall in North Charleston was called by congressional Republicans who believe the Obama administration is simply helping an important constituent, labor, by going after Boeing.

The meeting, marked by sharp exchanges and partisan theater, played to Republican strengths in South Carolina, a bullwark against organized labor and a conservative bellwether politically.

The labor board is a government agency that is independent but dominated by Democrats.

"The American people deserve to know if regulatory agencies are exceeding their legal authorities to pursue a partisan agenda," the panel's chairman, Darrell Issa said, adding that any appearance of political favortism "would be disturbing."

Solomon, a longtime NLRB attorney appointed by President Barack Obama to his current job, said politics are not behind the decision to pursue the case against Boeing.

The White House has also said it was not involved in the matter.

Solomon said evidence would show Boeing's action was motivated by retaliation against the union. Boeing has said the NRLB has overreached and that it did not violate the law.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney said Boeing "is not above the law" and the "NLRB is part of our justice system" that "should be given the opportunity to do justice in the Boeing case."

Boeing officials did not appear at the hearing, but an employee, Cynthia Ramaker, testified that "thousands of people would be unemployed" if the NRLB complaint is successful and Boeing moves the new production line to Washington state where 787 work has been done so far.

(Reporting by Harriet McLeod in Charleston; Writing by John Crawley; Editing by Steve Orlofsky, Gary Hill)