In a Feb. 15 union vote, Boeing workers in North Charleston, South Carolina, rejected the Machinists union by 74 percent — an almost three-to-one margin. The tally was 731 for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM), and 2,097 against, and turnout was very high, with 2,828 ballots cast out of 3,000 eligible.
“What occurred at Boeing South Carolina was not a lost election; it was a process rigged against the people who do the work,” said AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka in a written statement reacting to the Boeing vote. “Boeing opened this plant in South Carolina to try and take advantage of workers without a union, to drive down wages and treat thousands of its employees like second-class workers.”
IAM represents over 35,000 Boeing employees at 24 U.S. locations, including the Puget Sound region of Washington and Portland, Oregon. Boeing’s South Carolina workers earn $23 per hour on average, about a third lower than the $31 per hour wage that comparable union-represented Boeing workers earn in Washington.
The South Carolina operation was formerly owned by Vought Aircraft, a Boeing supplier. In 2007, workers there voted to join IAM, and ratified a first contract in November 2008. But in July 2009, Boeing bought Vought and terminated the union contract. Workers voted to decertify the union two months later.
That’s when Boeing decided to expand in South Carolina and build its 787 Dreamliner final assembly plant there.
In 2011, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) determined that its decision was made at least in part to punish its unionized Puget Sound work force for striking — which would be a violation of federal labor law. But the IAM dropped its NLRB case against Boeing as part of a contract settlement later that year.
In 2015, the IAM campaigned to get the South Carolina workers to join, but withdrew five days before a scheduled union election after concluding that it lacked majority support at that time.
Campaigning this year in South Carolina, the IAM once again faced a vigorous anti-union campaign by Boeing, as well as opposition from local politicians and business groups. Bloomberg News reported that by Feb. 6, Boeing had run 485 antiunion ads on local TV, and the South Carolina Manufacturers Institute had run another 350, including one antiunion spot that ran locally during the Super Bowl. Antiunion ads also ran on billboards, in print, on the web and on the radio.
The IAM also bought $20,000 of TV ads on two stations, featuring statements of support from Boeing workers in the Puget Sound.
The day before the election, 12 Democratic U.S. Senators issued a statement of support for the union drive, led by Sherrod Brown of Ohio.
“Union representation is the bedrock of our middle class and has empowered generations of American workers to organize for better wages and fairer treatment in the workplace,” the statement said. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren signed, as did Oregon senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, though not Washington senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray.
But South Carolina’s U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham spoke against the union campaign, telling local media, “If we destroy the business model that led Boeing to South Carolina, this plant will not be able to grow.”
In the end, Boeing workers, or “teammates” as the company calls them, listened to Graham.
Two days after the vote, President Donald Trump is expected to visit the plant for the rollout of the first Dreamliner 787-10, assembled exclusively in North Charleston.