By Alwyn Scott and Bill Rigby
NEW YORK/SEATTLE (Reuters) - Angry Boeing machinists have filed eight unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board alleging their union's top leaders manipulated a recent contract vote, and demanding that ballots be recast.
The NLRB has launched an investigation into the charges, filed by individual members against the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, said Anne Pomerantz, an attorney with the NLRB regional office in Seattle.
The charges stem from a January 3 vote that approved Boeing's contract offer by just 600 votes, ensuring its latest jetliner, the 777X, will be built in the Seattle area.
The vote divided the union because, to gain the work, machinists had to agree to eliminate their pension after 2016.
If the push for a recount fails, which appears likely, Boeing will resume the rocky relationship with the city and region it helped to build, although it is less of a force.
Union members allege their international leaders timed the vote to coincide with the holidays, when many members were on vacation, and "disenfranchised" them, Pomerantz said.
The members also allege leaders held the vote over objections from the local district, which considered the new offer too similar to a November proposal to merit re-balloting.
"All the charges we have seen are against the international, not Boeing," Pomerantz said.
The "international," an umbrella organization, oversees local districts, such as District 751, which represents more than 31,000 machinists in the Puget Sound area.
FAIR OR NOT?
"We were not fairly represented by the international," said Robley Evans, 51, a local union steward and 28-year employee at Boeing, who filed one of the unfair labor practice charges.
"When you have a vote that was razor thin and you influence it like that ... It changed the election in my opinion."
But R. Thomas Buffenbarger, international president, said workers had every opportunity to vote, and 500 applied for electronic absentee ballots, which could be cast from anywhere.
"This contract vote was probably as accessible to everyone in that bargaining unit as any I've ever seen," he said in an interview.
The ballots were counted at union halls where workers cast them, he said, "in eyesight of everyone who wanted to watch."
Pomerantz said the NLRB will interview all sides and determine if there is merit in moving forward with a case that the leaders did not provide fair representation. If so, the NLRB General Counsel could file a complaint.
Boeing noted that none of the charges have been filed against it, but declined to comment further.
"Boeing has no authority over the voting process or scheduling," spokesman Doug Alder said.
Bryan Corliss, spokesman for District 751, said no local leaders were involved in filing charges.
"This is all being member-driven," he said.
One of four lodges, or local groupings of workers, passed resolutions on Tuesday calling for an audit and a revote, he said. The others were expected to meet this week, their first opportunity to talk since the vote last Friday.
"We're going to hear a lot from our members," he said.
Seattle staged the first U.S. city-wide general strike in 1919, and that militancy lives on. Boeing has been hit with four major strikes in the past 25 years, halting 200 days of production in Seattle-area plants.
In an effort to assert independence from the region, Boeing moved its headquarters to Chicago in 2001. In 2011, it opened a 787 production line in South Carolina, a state much less friendly to unions, and has acquired land there for expansion.
Fear that the new widebody aircraft and its new carbon-composite wing factory would leave the state gave the company leverage on its workforce and the local government. Boeing received offers from 22 states interested in the factory.
If "the 777X was not built in the region, it would have been a big hit to Seattle," said Roque Deherrera, a business advocate at Seattle's Office of Economic Development.
A 'no' vote by the union, "would have sent a clear signal that further models would not be built in Puget Sound, which would be tremendously significant," said Alex Pietsch, who works for Washington's governor promoting aerospace.
"The 777X was really the watershed moment."
Boeing's commercial aircraft operation contributes $70 billion to the state economy through aircraft sales, buying local goods and paying wages, according to a recent study by aerospace industry boosters.
Younger tech workers, who flooded the city over the past two decades, might earn and spend more, and the economy now includes Microsoft Corp, Amazon.com Inc, Costco Wholesale Corp, Starbucks Corp and other big companies. But the loss of Boeing would wipe out part of the region's middle class and gut blue-collar jobs, especially around Boeing's plants in Everett and Renton.
To spur a revote, however, the facts would need to show that the actions of international leaders were discriminatory, arbitrary or in bad faith, a relatively high bar, said Jeffrey Hirsch, a former NLRB lawyer who is now a professor and associate dean at the University of North Carolina.
"If in fact it really disenfranchised folks, that may be an issue," he said.
But the standard is not whether the election could have been done better. It is whether the actions were arbitrary.
"A lower turnout doesn't necessarily mean people were disenfranchised," Hirsch added.
He also noted that with trial and appeals, the case could last three years or more. By then, Boeing would have built the factory for the 777X, which is due to enter service in 2020.
The machinist have been successful before. In 2011, the NLRB filed a complaint against Boeing, alleging the company built a new factory in South Carolina as retaliation against the machinists for striking.
The complaint quoted Boeing Chief Executive Jim McNerney as saying he was "diversifying (the) labor pool and labor relationship," and moving 787 work because of "strikes happening every three to four years in Puget Sound."
The case went to trial, Pomerantz said, but settled when Boeing and the machinists struck a deal to extend their current contract until 2016, in exchange for work on the 737 jet staying in the Puget Sound region.
That contract is the one machinists voted last week to extend to 2024.
(Reporting by Alwyn Scott and Bill Rigby.)