South Carolina Boeing workers say no to joining machinist union
An uphill battle for organizers, vote maintains the South's anti-unionization history.
NORTH CHARLESTON, SC — Production workers at Boeing’s South Carolina plant voted Feb. 15 not to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers union, maintaining southern reluctance toward unionization.
Vote totals weren’t immediately available. Under NLRB rules, workers must wait a year before another union vote. In a statement, Machinists organizer Mike Evans said the union was disappointed with the vote but vowed to stay in close touch with Boeing workers to figure out next steps.
“Ultimately it will be the workers who dictate what happens next,” Evans said. “We’ve been fortunate enough to talk with hundreds of Boeing workers over the past few years. Nearly every one of them, whether they support the union or not, have improvements they want to see at Boeing. Frankly, they deserve better.”
The vote among nearly 3,000 workers preceded by two days a visit by President Donald Trump to attend the rollout of the first Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner from the aircraft maker’s campus.
If successful, the balloting on whether employees should join the Machinists union would have sent a significant message to politicians in the region and Washington that workers here want the same protections and benefits as those in other areas. And, to leaders trying to recruit businesses by promoting their states’ lack of union presence, it would have made their jobs more difficult.
But this most recent test of Southern acceptance of collective bargaining movements was an uphill battle for the union and its backers. The global aviation giant, which came to South Carolina in part because of the state’s minuscule union presence, did so with the aid of millions of dollars in state assistance made possible by officials who spoke out frequently and glowingly with anti-union messages.
“It is an economic development tool,” Gov. Nikki Haley, now President Donald Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, said in a 2012 address of how she sold companies on coming to the state. “We’ll make the unions understand full well that they are not needed, not wanted and not welcome in the state of South Carolina.”
At least that part of the tactic has worked. Only about 52,000 South Carolina workers have union representation, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2016 figures. Other major manufacturers in the state, including BMW and Michelin, aren’t unionized or haven’t experienced major campaigns to do so. The Machinists initially petitioned for a vote at Boeing in 2015 but withdrew the request because of what the union called a toxic atmosphere and political interference.
Another facet of union opposition in this heavily Republican state is political, given the longstanding relationship between organized labour and Democratic politics. Any lenience toward unions could be seen as giving Democrats a toehold here.
Southern states for decades have recruited manufacturers by promising freedom from the influences of labour unions, which except for some textile mills have been historically rejected by workers as collective action culturally foreign to a South built around family farms, said Jeffrey Hirsch, a law professor who specializes in labour relations at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
A successful union vote at Boeing would have had a greater regional impact than Volkswagen workers’ efforts to unionize in Chattanooga, Tenn. Anti-union advocates cited VW as an aberration since representatives of one of its key unions in Germany hold seats on the company’s board of directors, Hirsch said.
“Boeing is very, very different,” Hirsch said. “No one will ever accuse Boeing of being pro-union.”
Boeing didn’t threaten to move its operations abroad if workers unionized, perhaps abstaining from those threats because of its huge South Carolina plant investment and billions of dollars in federal defence contracts the company does not want to risk.
The union vote also came after Trump blasted Boeing for the cost of building a new Air Force One.
“Costs are out of control,” Trump tweeted in early December. “Cancel order!”
Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg met with Trump two weeks later.
Catherine Templeton, South Carolina’s former labour director and successful anti-union lawyer, is no stranger to this fight. When Haley picked Templeton to lead South Carolina’s labour department, the governor played up Templeton’s union-fighting background and saying she needed her help to “fight the unions” at Boeing.
“They cannot legally deliver higher wages, better benefits or a different working environment. Even if they are promising it, they certainly can’t deliver it,” Templeton said.
Asked about the vote, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said he didn’t feel unions were needed in this state, where Boeing and other companies have been successful, and where, he feels, workers are generally happy.
“I think we’re doing just fine without a union presence,” he said.
In a statement emailed to reporters, Boeing vice-president and general manager Joan Robinson-Berry was already looking toward Trump’s visit, the first by a sitting president to the company’s North Charleston facilities.
“It is great to have this vote behind us as we come together to celebrate that event,” she said.