"Our challenge over the next 12 months is to find that same effectiveness in aligning our interests when we negotiate a new contract," Healy said.

At the moment, a dispute between Boeing and the IAM has become a cause célèbre , hijacked by politicians and right wing provocateurs and held up as an example of the evils of the union movement.

It is actually something far different and far more arcane: an alleged violation of labor law, one with a fairly simple and narrowly defined resolution.

In April, the general counsel for the National Labor Relations Board issued a complaint against Boeing, arguing that its decision to build a plant in Charleston, S.C., represented an illegal retaliation for a 2008 IAM strike. The plant opened in July and is building 787s. The 1935 National Labor Relations Act protects the right to strike, and as a corollary prohibits moving work in retaliation for strikes.

The general counsel's complaint is a first step that requires approval by the board itself and then, potentially, by the courts. Any remedy would apply to only three of the ten 787s Boeing intends to produce each month by 2014. By no means would it prevent Boeing from operating its Charleston plant, as has been frequently alleged.

The case appears destined to linger for years, winding its way through the NLRB process and then through the courts. Buffenbarger said the IAM is prepared to battle all the way to the Supreme Court, despite the court's apparent conservative leanings, the country's anti-labor climate and the hysteria surrounding the general counsel's complaint.

At the moment, "The economy is suffering and people are looking for scapegoats. And when Wall Street, corporate America and politicians look for scapegoats, they single out people who are not afraid to speak out and who are not docile," making the labor movement an obvious target, Buffenbarger said.

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

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