Wednesday, June 15, 2011

You can't manufacture in South Carolina?

The dispute between airplane maker Boeing and the Machinists union could be the labor fight of the decade. Boeing has built a new assembly plant in North Charleston, S.C., a testament to the resilience of the Charleston area, which had its signature U.S. Navy shipyard yanked away by base realignment. Charleston lost thousands of jobs when the Navy pulled out, and landing Boeing's highly sought-after 787 Dreamliner factory promised a new era in the South Carolina Lowcountry.

But Machinists in Washington state complained that the new assembly plant was a violation of federal labor law and appealed to the National Labor Relations Board, which found that building a new factory in a non-union state violates labor law. Who would've thought it? That decision is now on appeal and will likely end up in federal court. This fight comes after Democrats gave up their plans to acquiesce to labor's demands for "card check" unionization, which would eliminate secret ballot elections for unionizing. Democrats never brought the issue to a vote, even when they had strong majorities in Congress after the 2008 elections.

Boeing apparently made no secret of the fact that it wanted to build a new assembly plant in a location that would not be subject to labor unrest. Machinists had gone on strike four times from 1989 to 2008. A Boeing official said the company could not afford to stop production every three years. Charleston was just one of several locations, including Kinston, N.C., that Boeing considered.

If labor law prohibits a company from building new factories, that has to come as a surprise to most people. The steel industry, automobile manufacturing, textiles and other manufacturing moved production from heavily unionized northern cities to "right to work" states throughout much of the 20th century. In the latter part of that century, companies moved manufacturing from the South to even lower-wage factories in foreign countries. Reducing costs is a motivating factor in any competitive environment.

Apparently it is not wages that motivated Boeing's move but production consistency. When you're selling multi-million-dollar aircraft, a strike every few years is extremely expensive, and Airbus, the European consortium, is all too eager to make up for Boeing's production delays. The Charleston facility, which is already built, would supplement Boeing's Washington plant. No union members in Washington have lost their jobs, nor have wages been cut. All that Boeing has done is ensure the continuation of its production schedule. The NLRB has found that to be a violation of federal law. If the courts finds that to be illegal, manufacturing in this country is truly endangered.

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