The Machinists union has filed a complaint against Boeing with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), charging that the company was retaliating for a 2008 union strike when it decided last fall to put a second Dreamliner assembly line in Charleston, S.C., rather than Everett.

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The Machinists union has filed a complaint against Boeing with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), charging that the company was retaliating for a 2008 union strike when it decided last fall to put a second Dreamliner assembly line in Charleston, S.C., rather than Everett.

It is illegal under the National Labor Relations Act for employers to retaliate against workers for engaging in lawful activities, including strikes.

The unfair-labor practices complaint by the International Association of Machinists (IAM) District 751 is being investigated by the NLRB’s Seattle office.

In a statement, District 751 president Tom Wroblewski cited public declarations by senior Boeing executives tying the selection of North Charleston to a desire to avoid Machinists’ strikes in the Puget Sound region.

Such declarations, Wroblewski said, “send a message to workers that they should not stand up for their rights at the bargaining table. We will not allow this unlawful intimidation to stand as we prepare for the 2012 contract negotiations.”

Boeing spokesman Tim Healy said the company believes the charges are “meritless.”

The IAM struck Boeing for two months in fall 2008, the fourth strike in a decade. Early the following year, Boeing Chief Executive Jim McNerney told Washington’s congressional delegation the repeated strikes were a major problem and the company would seek another location for its second 787 assembly line unless the union agreed to a long-term no-strike clause.

“We were entirely transparent with the IAM,” Healy said. “We needed an agreement that would allow us to meet our customer commitments.”

In direct negotiations with the union last summer and fall, the two sides failed to reach agreement and Boeing announced the new assembly line would go to North Charleston.

The complaint was filed with the NLRB in March. That same month, Jim Albaugh, the chief executive of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said in a Seattle Times interview that “the overriding factor (in choosing South Carolina) was not the business climate. And it was not the wages we are paying today … It was that we can’t afford to have a work stoppage every three years.”

Is that an illegal reprisal, punishing a past strike? Or is it a legitimate strategic choice, avoiding future strikes?

“Our decision has everything to do with being a reliable supplier and is not a reprisal for the past,” said Boeing’s Healy.

Richard Ahearn, the NLRB regional director investigating the complaint, said it would have been an easier case for the union to argue if Boeing had moved existing work from Everett, rather than placing new work in Charleston.

As it is, Ahearn said, he cannot point to any “bright line” in the law that makes it immediately clear whether this was illegal retaliation or a legitimate strategy.

The NLRB is still gathering evidence. Ahearn said an initial ruling is weeks away and would be subject to appeal.

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com