Brian Knowles on Representing Boeing South Carolina Whistleblowers

Brian Knowles is an attorney who, along with his co-counsel Rob Turkewitz, represents nine whistleblowers from Boeing’s manufacturing facility in Charleston, South Carolina.

The complaints from the Boeing whistleblowers range from hostile work environments, to shoddy workmanship, to overlooking safety precautions.

And then there is the issue of anti-union training.

How did the Boeing cases come in the door?

“Boeing came to Charleston around 2011,” Knowles told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week.”That was a big deal for that size of company to come to Charleston. Charleston is smaller. We had not had any kind of major American manufacturing facility here. It was a big deal for Charleston. Everybody here was happy about it.”

Why did Boeing go to Charleston?

“There are some documents filed in a National Labor Relations Board case that talks about a Project Gemini that Boeing had. They were evaluating different sites – where to put their 787 Dreamliner manufacturing plant. South Carolina was a pro on Boeing’s books because it was a non union, right to work state. That means that a worker could be terminated for any reason.” 

“Since about 2012, we have been getting whistleblowers from that facility. They allege they have been retaliated against for raising safety issues. The city is North Charleston. It’s a joint base where the Air Force and the Charleston airport share space. The city of North Charleston and the state of South Carolina gave Boeing huge tax incentives to come here.”

“But primarily, from the Gemini report, it seems that they wanted to get rid of the union influence, which they saw as negative. And they did. And I’ve heard some pretty radical things coming out of that plant – efforts to keep the unions out of this facility.”

What can you say about it?

“As I mentioned, one reason we believe that Boeing chose South Carolina was because it is a right to work state.” 

“The rationale for Boeing’s decision was addressed in its Project Gemini, in which

Boeing concluded that it ‘creates a non-union, competitive labor force, lowers labor costs and

avoids current hostage situation,’ ‘creates a competitive labor choice and counterbalance to

union leverage,’ and ‘leverages 787 final assembly placement decision by rebalancing an

unbalanced and uncompetitive labor relationship.’” “Our clients indicate that there was a very hostile environment surrounding anti-union activities,” Knowles said.

“In 2015, it was reported in The State newspaper that two union organizers were ‘threatened at gunpoint and other workers reported hostile confrontations.’”

“Two of our quality manager clients, who made whistleblower safety complaints, indicated that the substance of weekly and monthly senior manager meetings revolved around an anti-union manipulation campaign and attempted coercion through gaslighting, rather than discussing any substantive production and quality issues.” 

“Senior managers at these meetings repeatedly ordered managers to turn in any employees who discussed the union to either human resources or their senior manager.” 

“In essence, these meetings were focused on how to keep out the union at all costs.” 

“Senior managers were telling managers and employees that we do not need the union – 

people will start out with the same hire time, the pay would be a lot less – and they would have to earn their pay.” 

“One of our clients was a hiring manager early on during the hiring process at Boeing South Carolina, and he indicates that he was repeatedly ordered not to hire any worker from Washington State, or any union worker, or any person that exhibited union traits.”

“Managers were told to throw union flyers or union cards into the trash can. Boeing South Carolina management went to the extent of having blue t-shirts made that they were giving out to everyone that said something along the lines of – I Am Against the Union – including kids size t-shirts.”

“Clients indicate that they were forced to attend an anti-union ‘leadership program’ that was held by a consulting company PML, which involved a highly offensive two-day ‘training’ session at a hotel in North Charleston.” 

“The ‘training,’ which promoted an intimidation campaign, involved skits where participants were assigned a role to play, such as a human resource employee or a manager.” 

“The participants were separated and taken into separate hotel rooms, where the beds had been removed. They were immediately told they were not allowed to leave the room for anything, including going to the bathroom until the ‘training’ was over at the end of the day.” 

“Our client recalls one ‘training’ skit where union activists accused non-union workers of being drug dealers and child molesters. An individual dressed up in a police officer uniform slammed a female against the wall, alleging she was a drug dealer. The female was supposed to have been a person making the union look ‘bad.’ This scenario was supposed to show that the union would set up people that were against them.” 

“In another skit, a non-union male was falsely accused of being a child molester by the union. Our client was supposed to act as an HR person in this scenario, and as she was standing in the room full of people, a group of male employees were allowed into the room, with one who began screaming in her face that the guy was a pedophile, and that she needed to do something about it, and if she didn’t do anything that he knew where her kids and grandkids were and would come after them. In this scenario, the guy yelling was supposed to be a union member.”

“In the final skit of the two day ‘training,’ one client was in a room where guys were sitting in metal chairs and banging coins onto the chairs, as if they were getting ready to riot. Several of these males aggressively jumped up and threw a female against the wall with multiple guys holding her against her will. The program coordinator hurried the Boeing South Carolina employees out of the room as if the female’s life was in danger.”

“The participants were told prior to attending the meeting that they were not allowed to talk about the ‘training’ unless they had received a pyramid clock that was to be displayed on their desks.” 

“The clock is inscribed at the bottom of the four corners with the words – PML Leadership is – rightness, trust, and integrity – which was to further instill a reminder that if you were to support the union you would not be right, could not be trusted, and would have no integrity. Implicitly, Boeing sought leaders that were easily manipulated into preventing the employees from unionizing.”

“It appears that Boeing is more concerned about keeping the union out than safety and quality.”

How many Boeing employees or former employees do you have as clients?

“Right now nine clients. John Barnett is the only one who is public.” 

What have you learned from the nine at the facility in North Charleston?

“I have never seen anything like it. You have all of these people coming forward. The majority of them have spent their careers in aviation. They are respected and held in regard by most of their peers. They had been held in high regard by the company. We have talked to dozens of retired people who came out of there – not just our nine clients. A common theme is that there is a hostile work environment there, primarily arising out of production pressures to get the plane out the door at all costs and placing profits over safety.”

We reached out to Boeing for a response to the allegations of anti-union training at Boeing.

“We won’t be commenting at this time,” a spokesperson for Boeing told Corporate Crime Reporter.

[For the complete q/a format Interview with Brian Knowles, see 35 Corporate Crime reporter 38(13), Monday September 4, 2021, print edition only.]

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