Boeing Union Organizing Effort Collapsing in South Carolina

Owen Humphreys/PA Wire URN:15449317 (Press Association via AP Images)
Owen Humphreys/PA Wire via AP

The International Association of Machinist (IAM) were cocky on March 17 when they filed petitions with the National Labor Relations Board for a vote to organize 3,175 jet assembly workers at  the Boeing Company’s nonunion factories in South Carolina. But a week before the April 22 vote, panicking that they are about to lose, the union is on the verge of withdrawing the vote.

Boeing celebrated 100 years of airplane construction last year. With planes originally built out of wood as the key commodity; Seattle area was the ideal location for the company and its factories. But following a 69 days machinist strike in the mid-nineties at their massive Seattle area factories over pension and job security, Boeing began diversifying away from its heavy reliance on commercial jets.

The company merged with St. Louis based McDonnell Douglas Corporation to create Boeing Defense Group. In 1996 they purchased Rockwell Aerospace and Defense, and in 2000 added El Segundo, California based Hughes Space and Communications.

After a strike in 2000 by the Seattle area union for the ‘Society of Professional Engineering Employees In Aerospace’, Boeing hired McKinsey & Company consultants and moved senior management to Chicago to distance themselves from the constant labor strife.

Following a 2003 announcement that Boeing was still committed to Seattle and would assemble their new 787 Dreamliner jet in the area, the Machinists Union began organizing Boeing subcontractors in Washington. With record demand for the aircraft, Machinists in 2005 went on strike for 28 days. Three years later with delays building for 787 deliveries, Boeing Machinists went on strike for 57 days over job security, health care and retired member benefits.

Boeing in 2009 with a record 787 Dreamliner backlog and the first plane delivered, selected the labor union unfriendly state of South Carolina as the site of its second 787 assembly line.

Production and maintenance workers at Boeing’s three facilities in South Carolina earn an average of $20.59 per hour; more than $10 less per hour than their counterparts at Boeing’s other Dreamliner campus in the Seattle area. But the wages are higher than the South Carolina average and workers will receive a cost of living increase of 1.9 percent this fall that will boost average wages to $20.99 per hour.

In 2011 and 2013, Boeing negotiated new work rule provisions and other concessions from Seattle area Machinists’ and Engineers’ unions over the threat of moving commercial assembly for the next generation of 737 and 777X to non-union states.

Last year, Seattle area Boeing Machinists barely agreed by 51 percent to 49 percent vote to not strike and accept a concessionary contract that resulted in profound changes for Machinists, including losing defined-benefit pensions by 2016 in favor of 401-K’s.

The International Association of Machinists were supremely confident that they could end Boeing’s ability to move jobs to non-union states when they announced in an IAM press release last month, “Workers at Boeing [South Carolina plants] had reached out to the IAM regarding numerous workplace concerns, including forced overtime, fair wages and a lack of respect on the shop floor.” The union added, “The petition was filed after a significant number of Boeing workers signed authorization cards expressing interest in union representation.”

But the union ran into Governor Nikki Haley, who said in her January State of the Union speech that South Carolina has “a reputation — internationally — for being a state that doesn’t want unions because we don’t need unions. And it is a reputation that matters.”

Haley thundered: “The truth is the IAM cares about one thing and one thing only — its own power,” Haley said. “And the successes of Boeing in South Carolina, and more so, the successes of the non-union workers who populate its ranks, are a threat to the IAM. … I have every confidence that the Boeing workers in (North) Charleston will see this play for exactly what it is and reject this union power grab.”

Despite sending a small army of 150 union IAM staff and volunteers that played hard ball tactics in canvassing eligible workers with “phone calls and home visits to gauge support for the creation of a collective bargaining agreement,” the effort has collapsed after the vast majority of South Carolina employees refused to support the union.

IAM spokesman Frank Larkin tried to soften the blow of defeat by claiming that misinformation about moving the factory or losing future work undermined its organizing effort. While the company is barred from retaliating against employees for any unionization vote, “rumors on the shop floor can come without clear attribution.”

Larkin said that that a withdrawal of its petition for an election at Boeing’s South Carolina facilities has “always been a possibility” if sufficient support didn’t materialize during the organizing effort. He acknowledged that cancellation is “being given serious consideration,” but stated it was not unusual for an organizing effort to take two or three attempts before a collective bargaining unit was created and South Carolina organizing effort would continue.


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