Boeing has cause for confidence about staying union-free in South Carolina, where a previous attempt to organize its aircraft factory fizzled. But when 3,000 employees vote Wednesday on joining the Machinists, it could be close and the company isn’t leaving anything to chance.
At a Monday rally in a North Charleston hotel conference room, South Carolina State Rep. David Mack looked out on about 100 supporters of the longshot campaign to unionize the city’s Boeing plant.
Noting the aggressive opposition from management and the state business lobby, including a battery of anti-union commercials on local TV, the Charleston Democrat quipped: “After seeing some of those commercials, I was almost afraid to come in here.”
Boeing has ample cause for confidence about staying union-free in South Carolina, the least unionized state in the U.S., where a previous attempt to organize the aircraft factory fizzled before a vote. But the company isn’t leaving anything to chance Wednesday, when about 3,000 employees are eligible to vote on whether to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM).
The election is the latest round in a long-running, frequently ugly, unusually politicized struggle between the company and the union, which represents about 30,000 Boeing workers in the Seattle area.
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It was freedom from strikes and escalating wages, a Boeing executive said in 2010, that was the overriding motivation for the company to place its new production line for 787 Dreamliners in South Carolina. The union brought a charge to the National Labor Relations Board alleging retaliation. The NLRB’s general counsel issued a complaint, sparking a firestorm of criticism from Republicans, including then-Governor Nikki Haley and several presidential candidates. The IAM agreed to drop the case upon reaching a new contract for its Washington members.
Boeing’s southward shift was oft-touted by business and political leaders such as Haley, who saw union-avoidance as such a selling point in luring investment that she said she’d discourage unionized companies from coming to her state, so they didn’t “taint the water” there.
President Donald Trump is scheduled to visit the plant Friday.
“If the Machinists won at Boeing, it would be an earthquake in the South,” said University of California, Santa Barbara, labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein. So Boeing and its allies are pulling out all the stops to make sure that doesn’t happen.
The jet maker ran 485 local TV spots between Jan. 31 and Feb. 6 urging workers to vote against the IAM, according to data from advertising tracker Kantar Media/CMAG. Additional anti-union ads from the South Carolina Manufacturers Institute had aired 350 times by Feb. 6, including one that ran locally during the Super Bowl.
Boeing has also deployed radio, billboards, YouTube videos, social media, emails and mailings to reach its employees, according to the union.
The IAM says Boeing has been pressing its case aggressively in the workplace as well, including through mandatory meetings, casual conversations on the shop floor, TV screens placed in break rooms, free anti-union T-shirts, and a giant stack of food, diapers and clothing labeled as all the things employees could buy for the same cost as annual union dues. A postcard titled “The Truth About IAM Wage Claims,” one of several the IAM says have been distributed by management at morning meetings, urges employees to “Just say NO to the IAM” and features an image of Pinocchio.
On Monday, Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO and President Kevin McAllister joined Boeing South Carolina general manager Joan Robinson-Berry for group meetings with employees, at which a Boeing spokesperson said they discussed “the importance of their decision” about unionization. Workers say the executives suggested unionization would mean giving away all of their rights to the union and could ruin the plant’s competitiveness.
“They were threatening us basically” through “innuendo,” said employee Don Winckles. “They take the worst possible scenario and throw it out there, and a lot of people buy it, even though those people don’t like the way things are now.”
The Machinists union says Boeing has taken classic labor-busting tactics to unusual extremes. “It’s on steroids right now,” said Mike Evans, the lead organizer on the campaign. Along with stoking fears about dues and strikes, Evans said, managers have suggested to employees that if they unionized they could stop getting bonuses and their jobs could be moved to China.
Boeing spokeswoman Elizabeth Merida said in an email that “we are not making threats or asking teammates how they will vote or what they think of the union.” Under federal law, employers aren’t allowed to threaten to punish employees if they unionize, but have leeway to make negative predictions about what could happen afterward. Merida said Boeing is “making every effort” to inform employees that the union’s “motivation for their interest is financial and could be strongly influenced by their commitment to protect jobs in Washington state.”
In 2014, Washington state employees narrowly approved a contract freezing their pensions to get Boeing to build its 777X jet there. The IAM, whose demonstrated ability to disrupt Puget Sound production once brought great clout at the bargaining table, has been struggling to regain leverage. In 2015, when the IAM petitioned the NLRB for an election to unionize the South Carolina plant, Haley used Facebook and Twitter, a radio ad for Boeing, and her State of the State address to urge employees to reject the union. Citing “misinformation” from Boeing and “unprecedented political interference,” the IAM withdrew its petition for an election five days before it had been scheduled to take place.
While Haley has departed to serve as United Nations ambassador, Boeing still has friends ready to lend a hand. “Organized labor has no place in our state,” said Lewis Gossett, a former head of the state’s labor department. “A lot of like-minded companies don’t want to see them in South Carolina.”
Gossett is president of the South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance and of its education arm, which is running ads comparing joining the IAM to gambling in a casino and suggesting the union president needs dues to fund his family members’ salaries. Gossett said the ads were launched without any input from Boeing officials, including the one who sits on the alliance’s board.
The “VOTE NO” TV ads Boeing is running itself take a more positive tack, featuring employees talking about their child or their guitar, and saying “if you dream big with Boeing, you can go anywhere.”
On Monday, the state’s senior U.S. senator, Lindsey Graham, told reporters that he’d urge employees to remember that “if we destroy the business model that led Boeing to South Carolina, this plant will not be able to grow,” according to the Charleston City Paper.
The IAM has responded with ads of its own, featuring Boeing union members in Puget Sound sharing messages like, “You deserve the same benefits that we have.” But it says the company’s campaign has taken a toll, leaving some of its strong supporters too intimidated to talk to the media. “There’s a heavy fear factor here,” said Evans, who until last month was one of only two full-time organizers working on the campaign.
He declined to share what percentage of the South Carolina facility’s eligible workforce signed the IAM’s petition for an NLRB election; only 30 percent was legally required.
“A lot of people are afraid that if Boeing finds out they’re voting yes, that it will be against them,” said eight-year employee Kitt Johnson, who was disappointed more of his co-workers didn’t show up to Monday’s rally. “I’m hoping that that fear doesn’t blow into the election.”
Given how aggressive companies’ anti-union campaigns can be, no union should count on employees who won’t show their support in public to vote for the union in private, said Kate Bronfenbrenner, a senior lecturer at Cornell’s labor relations school. “If a worker does not come out and publicly say they’ll vote for the union, that means they also are not going to vote for the union.”