NLRB Official Stands Firm on Boeing Complaint

6:33 PM, Sep 16, 2011   |    comments
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Gannett Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Lafe Solomon knew he'd make some enemies when he accused the Boeing Co. of breaking labor laws by opening a plant in South Carolina to build 787 Dreamliner planes.

But Solomon, acting general counsel of the Federal Labor Relations Board, never anticipated the drubbing he's received from state and national Republican leaders since the board filed a complaint against Boeing in April.

"I couldn't have foreseen quite the political furor," Solomon told Gannett Washington Bureau in a recent interview. "Would I wish there weren't any political attacks? Yes."

Solomon's critics say he took on Boeing at the behest of labor unions, which are furious that the aircraft maker opened a second Dreamliner assembly plant in South Carolina, a right-to-work state, instead of expanding production in Everett, Wash., which is heavily unionized.

Those critics cast Solomon as a heartless Washington bureaucrat who would happily force Boeing to shut down its $750 million plant in North Charleston and fire 1,000 South Carolinians to appease his friends in the labor movement.

Solomon counters that the labor board's complaint against Boeing is rooted in fact, not politics. Boeing moved Dreamliner assembly work away from the Pacific Northwest to retaliate against union workers for past strikes, he said.

The case is being heard by an administrative judge in Seattle. A trial date hasn't been set and the case could take years to resolve -- unless both parties, as Solomon hopes, reach a settlement.

"People don't understand the facts," he said. "They don't know the facts. That is the point of the trial."

He's also adamant that the NLRB won't bow to the demands of its critics and drop the complaint.

"I'm not going to withdraw the complaint because of political pressure," he said. "This case has nothing to do legally with South Carolina. It has nothing to do with the fact that South Carolina is a right-to-work state. It would have been the same issue if (Boeing) had moved to Spokane, Wash."

South Carolina GOP Sens. Jim DeMint and Lindsey Graham scoffed at that assertion. And Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-Laurens County, called the NLRB complaint "an unconstitutional power grab."

He said the NLRB mistakenly believes it has the authority to tell a company "where it could move, what it could build, and how much."

The board's complaint asks that Boeing be forced to move the second assembly line back to Washington state, but Solomon acknowledged it's unlikely the judge in Seattle will order the North Charleston factory shut down because work there is well under way.

The Republican-controlled House passed a bill Thursday sponsored by Rep. Tim Scott, R-North Charleston, that would bar the NLRB from ordering any company to relocate, shut down or transfer operations for any reason.

But the bill is unlikely to pass the Senate, where Democrats are in the majority.

Solomon said his preferred outcome is a settlement, even though that appears unlikely.

"I certainly understand the apprehension of the workers in South Carolina," he said. "I truly am sorry for them ... Any time (the parties) reach a settlement, I'm happy to be out of the picture."

Boeing says the NLRB complaint lacks merit because the decision to open a new Dreamliner assembly line in South Carolina didn't lead to any workers being fired in Washington state, company spokesman Tim Deale said.

In fact, Boeing has hired thousands of workers in the Northwest since choosing the North Charleston site two years ago, he said Friday.

Seven Dreamliner planes will be built monthly in Everett and three in North Charleston, Neale said, and Boeing is confident a judge will allow that to continue.

The NLRB case is "an irritant," he said.

"It's taking up time and money to fight this," Neale said. "But ultimately we've got a very strong case here."

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