A US National Labour Relations Board (NLRB) panel says 178 technicians and inspectors at Boeing's 787 factory in South Carolina cannot organise as a union, which could deal a blow to workers nationwide seeking to organise "micro units" representing small parts of a company.

The decision published on 9 September overturns a ruling by a regional director of the board in 2018 that permitted that group of workers in the flight line section of the plant to vote for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) to represent them in collective bargaining negotiations.

Boeing appealed the board's decision after the flight line workers voted in June to have the IAM represent them. The Republican-led NLRB panel decision available online revoked the previous certification allowing union representation for those 178 flight line workers at the Boeing plant in North Charleston, which has a total of 2,700 workers.

The majority of the panel's members decided to revoke the certification because the interests of the flight line employees "are not sufficiently distinct from the interests of excluded employees" and because that group expressed an unwillingness "to proceed to an election in a unit extending beyond the Flight Line".

The board used that "community of interest" definition to determine fitness for union representation by analyzing whether the group had distinct interests including wages, grievances, job skills, duties and working conditions.

Board member Lauren McFerran dissented from the majority decision, stating that its community of interest analysis did not adequately explain the similarities with the thousands of other plant workers that could outweigh grievances of flight line workers.

"The majority erroneously downplays fundamental subjects of collective bargaining that matter most to workers, impermissibly prioritizes employer preference over employees’ organizational desires, and ultimately robs employees of their fullest freedom to organize in an appropriate unit of their choosing," McFerran said in her dissent.

Boeing's vice president of the 787 programme Brad Zaback says in an email to Cirium that the airframer is pleased with the board's decision.

“We will go forward as one Boeing South Carolina team to work with our teammates directly, to meet tomorrow's challenges, and continue the site’s great work to build the world’s most advanced airplanes,” Zaback writes.

The decision departs from the board's approach to union organising during the Obama administration, says Ron Mason, a former attorney for the federal labour board whose Ohio-based Mason Law Firm is focused on representing company managers dealing with union matters before the NLRB.

"This decision could affect all employers, not just aviation," says Mason. "This is what you are seeing out of a lot of NLRB decisions where they are going back to what the law was before the Obama administration."

The NLRB during the Obama administration sought to boost declining union representation by allowing small groups of workers to organise in "micro units" during labour negotiations, Mason says.

"The downside from a company's perspective is that it costs a company pretty much the same to coordinate a contract with 10 people as it does for 500," he says.

The IAM published a statement in response to the labour board's decision calling it "irresponsible and reckless".

"American workers are under attack from those who value corporations over working families,” the union says. “We stand with the Flight Line and all workers at Boeing South Carolina and justice will prevail when their voices are recognized.”

Source: Cirium Dashboard