NLRB Decision on Aircraft Mechanics at Boeing South Carolina is Huge Setback

Citizen Wealth Financial Justice Labor Organizing

Dusseldorf       Under this US administration, never say, “It can’t get much worse,” because it will.  In the assault on workers’ fundamental organizing rights under the National Labor Relations Act, the latest decision by the Trump-stacked board is potentially disastrous.  In a 3-1 decision with the NLRB’s Trump-appointed members outnumbering the lone Obama appointee with the other seats vacant, the board ruled that a unit of aircraft mechanics being sought by the IAM, the International Association of Machinists, was inappropriate.  In so doing, they overruled an earlier decision by the NLRB regional director sustaining the unit.   It’s really even worse than that.

This was a case where the Machinists had filed for a unit of 178 workers in March 2018.  A solid majority voted to join the union in June 2018 and were certified by the regional director of the NLRB.  The Machinists already represent 35,000 Boeing workers in Washington State facilities, but despite that, or perhaps because of that, Boeing refused to bargain with the union and instead challenged the unit on appeal after the election.  The regional director upheld the certification, so Boeing took a shot with the new Trump majority on the board and overturned the whole shebang.

Why is this important and so profoundly adverse for organizing?

Failing to amend the more than sixty-five-year-old labor law, the NLRB under Obama had allowed petitions to go directly to election on a somewhat faster timetable forcing companies to appeal later.  This small change was huge, because it eliminated employer tactics of trying to stall the election with delay tactics, hearings over trivial and nonexistent unit issues, until there was turnover or they had depressed the bargaining unit, adding to their ability to defeat the union in an election.  In this case, Boeing filed an appeal to thwart the will of the workers in the face of their victory.

The Obama NLRB had also allowed unions to carve out smaller units.  The language in the Act says “an appropriate bargaining unit” can be certified, meaning there is no such thing as a legal definition of one and only one appropriate unit.  Unions didn’t take much advantage of this, but in trying to organize huge plants, both the UAW in Tennessee and the IAM in South Carolina have tried this strategy.

Reading the NLRB decision, the Trump board has upended all precedent and the Act itself by declaring that this unit of 178-workers was inappropriate for two reasons.  First, they claim it involves two job classifications that do not have a “natural” community of interest.  Secondly, and more importantly, they claim the 178-workers have a community of interest with all 2700 production-and-maintenance workers in the Boeing plant.  Who know the merits of their first claim, but the clear signal on the second is that this radical NLRB is now claiming that there is only one appropriate unit, and that is the largest possible unit, where there is arguably a community of interest, making it virtually impossible to carve out smaller units under this board.

The NLRB in recent years has been a precarious harbor for advancing workers’ interests in organizing a union, and many unions have assiduously avoided going there and facing the uneven contests with employers in union elections.  The Trump NLRB has now signaled to companies and management attorneys everywhere that they should appeal all unit determinations that are anything short of including the kitchen sink, because they will now determine there to be a single allowable and appropriate unit, rather than “an appropriate unit” that might be within the scope of the union petitioner’s filing.

The Machinists leadership told the Post and Courier that they would keep on fighting.  They likely meant on the shop floor.  Given the makeup of the Supreme Court, an appeal of the NLRB’s Boeing decision would likely be a waste of time and money.  Given this decision of the NLRB, many union organizers will likely see bothering to go to election under this board will also likely be a waste of time and money.