Boeing and South Carolina politicians are determined to keep out the union, which is pressing its case through radio ads and billboards.
NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — Machinists union radio spots competed with campaign ads from Republican presidential candidates during the primaries here last month, testament to the union’s continued push to organize Boeing South Carolina.
Boeing ran competing ads, showing management is determined to keep the International Association of Machinists (IAM) at bay.
Last April, after an intense anti-union campaign by South Carolina politicians led by Gov. Nikki Haley, the Machinists canceled a vote to certify the union when door-to-door canvassing revealed it wouldn’t get the needed majority.
The renewed advertising now — the union has just posted a new highway billboard — suggests it could seek a vote as early as this year.
IAM organizer Mike Evans, who operates out of a union field office near the plant, said in an interview that the union will petition the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for a new vote as soon as more than 50 percent of the roughly 3,300 production workers here sign the authorization cards that declare “Yes, I want the IAM.”
A September NLRB ruling eased the process by allowing workers, instead of signing those postcards, to simply fill in a form at a union website.
Pushing for higher pay
Boeing employees who support the unionizing effort believe that “we’re unfairly compensated for what we do,” said one production worker at the IAM field office, who spoke to a reporter on condition that he not be identified for fear of company retaliation.
As the company pushes for higher production rates and more efficiency, he said, “I want to know what’s in it for me.”
An IAM flyer says production workers at Boeing South Carolina now earn about $19.77 per hour after three years at the plant, rising to $22.62 per hour in 2018 given expected raises.
It compares that to an equivalent wage in Boeing’s Puget Sound plants of about $20.64 per hour now, rising to the top of the contract pay scale after six years of service to $38.61 per hour in 2018.
But another worker, speaking separately and also on condition of anonymity, dismissed the idea that the IAM could deliver big pay raises.
Because South Carolina is a so-called right-to-work state, even if the IAM wins a vote to represent the workforce, no one is forced to join the union, making unified actions such as a strike very difficult.
The IAM can make any demands it wants, the anti-union worker said, but “they really won’t have any teeth.”
Evans argued that besides wages, a union contract protects worker rights through “consistent work rules and grievance procedures as well as seniority rights.”
Mixing up work rules
Boeing opposes both higher wages, which it considers uncompetitive, and those work rules, which it considers restrictive.
Beverly Wyse, the vice president who has led Boeing South Carolina for the past year, described a program here called Edge, in which engineers and managers temporarily work alongside mechanics on the factory floor, collaborating to devise more efficient ways to do the work.
In Boeing’s Puget Sound factories, union contracts won’t allow a non-IAM member to do work that’s defined as a union job.
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“If we want to mix up who does certain work … in the Puget Sound that’s more difficult,” said Wyse.
Wyse fostered good worker relations in her previous post in charge of the Renton 737 assembly plant. She describes her role in South Carolina as convincing workers that they are better off dealing directly with Boeing management and that in return, they’ll be looked after.
“I don’t want to work on a nonunion strategy,” Wyse said. “I want to work on a healthy workforce strategy.”
Nonetheless, Boeing does have an explicit anti-union strategy in South Carolina, one that predates Wyse’s tenure.
Internal company presentations to managers from 2013, reviewed by The Seattle Times, outlined detailed strategies for how to handle the workforce and stymie organizing efforts so that the North Charlestion site will “Stay Union Free.”
That mandate extended to any suppliers on the site.
A fundamental principle stated in one slide is that “all businesses co-located at Boeing South Carolina recognize and will support the objective of remaining a Union Free work environment.”
Boeing political power
If the union does call another vote, expect another heated reaction from Republican political leaders in this conservative state.
And Boeing’s sway is so powerful here that the IAM cannot depend on aggressive counter-support from Democrats.
At the February ceremony where Boeing delivered its 100th Dreamliner built in North Charleston, local state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, a Democrat, insisted that he’s “a committed supporter of the right to organize.”
He said he meets with Boeing management “to make sure that employees are sharing in the prosperity.”
Kimpson went on to say, “I believe the company is doing that.”
“Boeing people tell me the employees here are doing pretty well,” he said. “I take them at their word.”