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A regional director for the National Labor Relations Board has ruled there’s merit to claims Boeing Co. illegally fired five workers who support the International Association of Machinists union at the aerospace giant’s 787 Dreamliner campus in North Charleston.

The ruling gives the IAM a preliminary win in its ongoing battle with Boeing over establishing a union presence in South Carolina — a right-to-work state with the nation’s lowest percentage of union workers.

The matter will now be heard by an administrative law judge. The IAM is expected to file an injunction calling for the workers’ immediate return to their jobs while the case is pending.

Boeing should “immediately reinstate our members, sit down now to negotiate a contract with its flight-line employees, end its scorched-earth anti-union campaign and get back to the business of working with the IAM and our members to build aircraft,” said Robert Martinez, the union’s national president.

Boeing downplayed the rulings, saying “there has been no finding of liability” against the company.

“Much like the initial filing of a lawsuit, all that has occurred is that the regional director has decided that the cases should go to trial,” said Boeing spokeswoman Libba Holland.

While the regional director’s decision isn’t a final ruling, “it indicates that the federal government found evidence supporting IAM’s claims and believes the company may have committed legal violations,” according to Bloomberg Law.

The rulings includes three flight-line inspectors who were fired for purportedly failing to notice a bird strike on an engine following a test flight of a 787-10 for United Airlines. Rich Mester, one of those fired, said Boeing never provided any evidence that a bird strike had occurred, although a company investigator said a feather had been found.

The two other union supporters were fired for allegedly violating Boeing’s safety rules. All of the workers say their jobs were in fact terminated because of their support for the union.

The IAM filed complaints over the firings to the labor board.

“Boeing has continuously and systematically ignored the law and trampled on the rights of its own employees in South Carolina,” Martinez said, calling the rulings “the critical first step” in what could be a lengthy process to have the workers rehired.

Boeing, however, said the workers’ union preference had nothing to do with their terminations.

“Each of the terminated employees was discharged for violating well publicized, longstanding and objectively reasonable safety and conduct policies,” Holland said. Those policies include falsifying company records, failing to come to work and walking across an active runway.

In addition to the worker termination cases, the NLRB’s regional director ruled in favor of the IAM in three instances where Boeing failed to bargain with the union before imposing disciplinary measures against workers. The director sided with Boeing on one additional worker termination case.

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The cases are moving forward as the labor board continues to consider Boeing’s appeal of a May 2018 election in which a majority of flight-line workers at the North Charleston plant voted for union representation. Boeing is refusing to acknowledge the union until its appeal is settled.

The union battle that’s playing out in North Charleston has had politicians across the spectrum speaking out. Democrats and Independents, including presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, have called on Boeing to recognize the union and negotiate a contract.

“It is alarming that instead of negotiating with the (union), Boeing has instead pursued a campaign of intimidation against the flight-readiness technicians,” Sanders said in a letter also signed by other senators and sent to Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg.

Republicans, including Gov. Henry McMaster who called the IAM’s presence “about as welcome as a Category 5 hurricane,” adding “we aren’t going to let out-of-state labor unions ruin the wonderful working environment in our state.”

A majority of 176 flight-line workers at the North Charleston plant voted in May 2018 to join the IAM. The federal labor board has not made a final ruling on that appeal.

The IAM represents 600,000 active and retired members in the North American aerospace, defense, airline, manufacturing, transportation, woodworking and other industries. The union already represents about 35,000 Boeing workers across the U.S.

Boeing is one of the Charleston region’s largest employers, with about 7,300 employees and contractors at the Dreamliner campus and other sites.