Production workers at Boeing's newly acquired assembly plant in Charleston, S.C., plan to vote Sept. 10 on a petition to get rid of the Machinists union.

Share story

Production workers at Boeing’s newly acquired assembly plant in Charleston, S.C., plan to vote Sept. 10 on a petition to get rid of the Machinists union.

At a National Labor Relations Board hearing Tuesday in Charleston, Boeing and the International Association of Machinists (IAM) agreed to the vote.

A decision to decertify the union at the Charleston plant could influence whether Boeing will move future airplane-assembly work there, including a second production line for its new 787 Dreamliner.

If the vote succeeds, nonunion Boeing Charleston will compete directly with the unionized Everett plant for the new 787 work. That raises the specter of Boeing for the first time developing a major final-assembly site on the East Coast that could siphon off production work on future airplanes from the Puget Sound region.

The petition that sparked the vote was filed by Dennis Murray, a quality inspector at the Charleston plant unhappy with the way the union forced through a weak contract last November without significant consultation with employees.

“I want people to have a fair voice in what happens to them,” said Murray. “That’s the position a union traditionally fights for. In this case, it’s the workers fighting against the union to achieve that.”

The union was not immediately able to say how many workers in the bargaining unit of almost 300 employees pay dues. Murray claimed more than 75 percent support for his petition, based on his own canvassing for signatures.

In the weeks ahead, Boeing will make its preference clear to the work force: Boeing management wants rid of the union at the plant.

Company labor-relations spokesman Tim Healy said managers will share “facts and data” with the work force outlining the differing treatment of unionized and nonunion workers at Boeing. “We’ll tell them we prefer to deal with our employees directly, without an intermediary,” Healy said.

IAM national aerospace coordinator Mark Blondin said the Charleston work force has the right to choose. He expressed confidence “they are going to choose the IAM.”

“Facts don’t lie,” said Blondin. “Boeing does not treat nonunion workers well.”

Last month, Boeing bought the plant, which builds the composite-plastic rear fuselage for the Dreamliner, from Texas-based Vought.

The Charleston operation had been plagued with startup problems, partly due to the inexperienced work force. In addition, the long delays in the 787 program left Vought with no income stream and a need for further hefty investment it was unwilling to make.

To secure control of its supply chain, Boeing stepped in with a $580 million purchase, plus the forgiveness of loans to Vought that brought the total cost to $1 billion.

A major obstacle for the union is resentment of the existing contract with Vought. The agreement delivered a meager annual raise of 1.5 percent, with a possible merit bonus up to 2 percent determined by managers.

The IAM ratified that contract in a last-minute, barely publicized “emergency meeting” with only 13 people present, a year after the union was organized at the plant. Without a contract in place by that one-year anniversary, workers could have voted again on Machinists representation and potentially ousted the union.

Murray was one of the workers incensed by that tactic. The Boeing purchase offers a new opportunity to revisit the decision.

“The contract with Vought did not live up to many of those members’ expectations,” Blondin conceded. “Not everybody got to vote.”

But he said the rushed vote was necessary because the company had dragged out negotiations deliberately to try to oust the union. He pointed out that the contract, however weak economically, secured recall rights for those workers being laid off. He said the union now has a right to improve the contract.

“We’ve got a great track record in negotiating contracts,” Blondin said. “The leverage will depend on the people and how strong they want to be.”

The showdown in Charleston is happening against a backdrop of tense negotiations between Boeing and the IAM in the Puget Sound region.

Last fall, the IAM signed a new four-year contract here after a two-month strike. Since then, Boeing has mounted an unprecedented behind-the-scenes campaign to reopen that contract and win a long-term no-strike agreement.

Boeing CEO Jim McNerney forcefully conveyed that message to state political representatives, including Gov. Chris Gregoire and Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, in a March meeting in Washington, D.C.

He told them union relations would be a major factor in the decision where to put a second 787 production line; the head of the 787 program said the decision may be made before year-end.

At a conference in Lynnwood last week, Fred Kiga, a Boeing vice president, said a second final-assembly site outside the Puget Sound region would offer the company the opportunity to continue production in the event of a work stoppage here.

But industry analysts are skeptical Boeing would make its decision based on the union issue alone.

Creating an assembly line in Charleston would require substantial investment in tooling and buildings. And, the lack of an experienced work force would inevitably bring added risk to a program already more than two years behind schedule.

Blondin doubts Boeing would risk further delays by placing new 787 work outside the Puget Sound region.

“Is Boeing making an emotional decision or an economic decision?” Blondin asked rhetorically.

Still, if Boeing is insistent on eliminating its vulnerability to labor unrest, a win in the Sept. 10 vote would give it extra leverage.

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or