Boeing shakedown

An eight-week strike by union Machinists in late 2008 shut down Boeing's commercial airplane production in Washington state. Boeing has said the strike was a factor in delays for its new 787 and a new version of its 747.

Documents released by the Machinists last Friday show Boeing managers were concerned about an "unbalanced" relationship with the union -- that the unions have too much leverage with their ability to shut down the company's production line. Even though building a new production line in right-to-work South Carolina cost between $1.5 billion and $2 billion, and even though Boeing managers fear new workers could be less productive than their existing work force in Washington state, Boeing figures union actions more than justify the cost.

Again demonstrating that it's really all about coercion, the National Labor Relations Board -- now dominated by pro-union Democrats -- has sued Boeing, arguing the South Carolina move was illegal because it amounted to retaliation against unions in Washington state.

Internal company documents from 2009 -- obtained through a subpoena during the government's lawsuit, now pending in Seattle -- say the South Carolina plan, dubbed "Project Gemini," would help in "rebalancing an unbalanced and uncompetitive labor relationship." One document says the South Carolina plan "creates a non-union, competitive labor choice" and "lowers labor costs and avoids the current hostage situation," an apparent reference to the past strikes.

"The Project Gemini documents prove what we've suspected all along -- that Boeing moved to Charleston to punish our members for exercising their union rights," argues Connie Kelliher, a spokeswoman for the Machinists union's District 751.

Actually, no. The law in question is supposed to prevent individual workers from being fired or punished for exercising their legal right to discuss or form unions. But there have been no layoffs or related firings at Boeing's existing facilities. The firm merely decided to expand elsewhere, with their estimate of future labor costs being a major factor in their decision.

The law in question doesn't and can't prevent employers from weighing the costs of a union labor force and using that analysis in their planning. Boeing spokesman Tim Neale says the company's decision to put the second 787 line in South Carolina "was fully consistent with the law and nothing in the documents quoted by the union suggests otherwise."

This lawsuit is misguided, not only in its reading of the law, but in a pragmatic sense. If a threat of unionization in any state were found to mean an employer could never again expand into any non-union state, the most reasonable solution is obvious: Shut down all U.S. operations immediately.

"Boeing shifting jobs from Washington state to South Carolina. How (does) that equal job creation for America?" asks Ms. Kelliher.

Actually, because no jobs have been trimmed in Washington state, "shifting" is an odd choice of verb. But, yes, creating thousands of new jobs in South Carolina does "equal job creation for America." Or would Ms. Kelliher prefer Boeing build its new plant in Malaysia?