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Union Workers Cry Foul Over New S.C. Boeing Plant

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Union Workers Cry Foul Over New S.C. Boeing Plant

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Union Workers Cry Foul Over New S.C. Boeing Plant

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

A new Boeing plant is creating controversy from Washington state to Washington, D.C. Boeing decided to build a new plant for its 787 Dreamliner, not in Washington state, where it's built planes for decades, but in South Carolina. There, workers would not have to be unionized. The company says its decision was a smart business move. Union workers say Boeing is breaking the law.

NPR's Kathy Lohr explains.

KATHY LOHR: Boeing's enormous assembly plant near the airport in North Charleston is almost finished. Inside, workers are installing equipment, what look giant blue and orange platforms where new employees will build the Dreamliner.

(Soundbite of machinery)

Ms. CANDY ESLINGER (Spokeswoman, Boeing, South Carolina): Right now it's a big open space. We have the tooling that we're starting to put place that we need for airplane production. So those will actually hold the airplane pieces as we put the airplanes together.

LOHR: Candy Eslinger is a spokeswoman for Boeing in South Carolina. She says she can't talk specifically about the union complaint, but Eslinger says it hasn't changed anything at the plant.

Ms. ESLINGER: Our plans are still going forward. We will be starting production here in July of 2011 and we'll deliver our first airplane out of South Carolina in 2012.

LOHR: The long-term plan is to produce three planes a month here and seven in Washington state. Boeing spokesman Tim Neale says the company negotiated with the union, but failed.

Mr. TIM NEALE (Spokesman, Boeing): We were looking to make a new investment and new production capacity. Our current contract acknowledges our right to locate work elsewhere. And that's what we chose to do in this case because we just couldn't get the terms from them that we needed.

LOHR: But the Machinists Union says it's not that simple. The union says Boeing built the plant in non-union South Carolina to retaliate against Washington workers for previous strikes. And the union says that's a violation of federal labor law. So the machinists turned to the National Labor Relations Board, which investigates labor disputes.

In April, the top lawyer for the NLRB issued a formal complaint against Boeing. Soon after, the issue erupted in the nation's capitol. GOP leaders introduced new federal legislation and began a campaign against the machinists union. Here's South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham on the Senate floor.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): Nobody's pay was cut, nobody's benefits were reduced because they moved to South Carolina. So this complaint is just frivolous. It is motivated by all the wrong reasons.

LOHR: The NLRB says all of Boeing's work on the Dreamliner should be done in Washington state. But Graham and others say no one should be able to tell a company where they can do business.

South Carolina Republican Governor Nikki Haley criticized the union's complaint on Fox News.

Governor NIKKI HALEY (Republican, South Carolina): It really is very offensive. It's an assault on everything that we know to be American, and they have to stop this.

LOHR: But David Campbell, an attorney representing the Machinists Union, says standing up for workers is anything but un-American.

Mr. DAVID CAMPBELL (Attorney): In America, people have collective bargaining rights. And in America, you don't settle judicial law enforcement cases in politics. You settle them in the courts, and that's what Boeing should be doing here.

LOHR: Back in North Charleston, where the Boeing plant is providing more than 1,000 non-union jobs, some residents at a local discount store say they're not sure what to think. Anthony Manuel is a member of the longshoremen's union.

Mr. ANTHONY MANUEL: We need the work here, too, you know, in Charleston, you know. But, I mean, it's about being fair and being honest. You know, if you did them wrong, how we feel if you going to do us wrong here in Charleston, too?

LOHR: But Brandy Hall says the jobs will really help Charleston, which struggled after the naval base was closed in 1996. And she's not sure the union should complain.

Ms. BRANDY HALL: They're not entirely moving the plant. So they still do have an economy up there based around that. And it's just that I don't - I'm not sure I see what the issue is, to tell you the truth.

LOHR: There's a hearing in Seattle on the legal issues next week, but it's not likely to resolve the matter. Boeing officials say if they lose, they'll appeal to the federal courts, where the case could remain for years.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Charleston, South Carolina.

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