Boeing’s Best Union Buster Is South Carolina’s Governor Nikki Haley

The South Carolina governor is stepping in on Boeing’s behalf

Nikki Haley

Nikki Haley

Photographer: Jon-Michael Sullivan/The Augusta Chronicle/Zuma

On April 22, 3,000 Boeing employees in South Carolina were scheduled to vote on whether to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, the union that represents their co-workers in Washington state. The vote was a big deal for the IAM; it fought hard against Boeing’s decision to build its 787 Dreamliner at the nonunion South Carolina plant after repeated strikes in Washington. But today, the union announced it’s withdrawing its election petition, meaning there won’t be a vote for at least six more months at the plant. That’s a victory for Boeing and for its biggest supporter: South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley.

Many Republican governors, including Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, have staked out anti-union positions, but Haley has been Boeing’s strongest weapon in its fight with IAM. She’s slammed the union on Facebook and Twitter using hashtags like #BoeingStrong and #VoteNo. She appeared in a Boeing radio ad encouraging workers to reject the unionization bid. In January she devoted part of her State of the State address to the issue. “We have a reputation internationally for being a state that doesn’t want unions, because we don’t need unions,” she said. “I have every confidence that the Boeing workers in Charleston will see this play for exactly what it is and reject this union power grab.” Over the past week, the IAM has acknowledged it might back out of the vote. Interviewed Wednesday, IAM spokesman Frank Larkin said, “Given the effort by Boeing and surrogates to spread misinformation about the IAM, misinformation about collective bargaining, as well as the unprecedented political interference, we’re concerned that a free and fair election is impossible at this time.”

Last year in Tennessee, Republican Governor Bill Haslam and Senator Bob Corker warned employees against unionizing at Volkswagen. Other elected officials threatened to cut state subsidies if workers unionized, and the United Auto Workers lost. “You don’t need the National Guard anymore to beat up picketers,” says Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “You can use the power of the purse to persuade workers that it’s not in their best interest to vote union.”

Haley’s feud with the IAM predates her 2011 inauguration. Her predecessor, Mark Sanford, lured Boeing production to South Carolina with a $170 million loan package and a state law that limits union contracts. “We can’t afford to have a work stoppage every three years,” Jim Albaugh, then the chief executive officer of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, told the Seattle Times.

As governor-elect, Haley announced she was appointing a veteran anti-union lawyer as head of South Carolina’s Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation to help her “fight the unions,” including at the soon-to-open Boeing plant. Her comments prompted a lawsuit by the IAM, which argued Haley’s union bashing violated federal law protecting union organizing. A federal judge dismissed the suit. In her first year as governor, the National Labor Relations Board’s chief prosecutor filed a complaint against Boeing alleging the company was shifting jobs to South Carolina to punish unionized employees for striking in Washington. Haley countered that the Obama administration was retaliating against South Carolina for curbing union organizing with its law, known as right-to-work. “This right-to-work thing and jobs and Boeing, it defines her,” says GOP consultant Walter Whetsell, who’s worked on Haley’s campaigns.

For Haley, a public grudge match with the machinists’ union is all upside. South Carolina is staunchly red and has the nation’s second-lowest unionization rate. She won reelection last year by more than 14 percentage points, and, at 43, is widely seen as a prospect for national office. “I wear heels—it’s not a fashion statement,” she told the crowd at the South Carolina Manufacturing Conference and Expo on April 14. “It’s because we’ve kicked the unions out every day of the week since I’ve been here.”

Boeing spokesman Rob Gross says Haley “has always been a strong supporter.” Haley declined to be interviewed. “As Governor Haley frequently points out, this is the very same union that first said our workers couldn’t build airplanes and then sued to shut down our plant and destroy thousands of South Carolina jobs,” her press secretary Chaney Adams said this week. “They should pack their bags, head back to Seattle, and stop trying to steal the success of the workers at Boeing South Carolina.”

But neither side expects the conflict to end soon. Even if the IAM lost the election, Haley warned Tuesday, “the unions won’t go away quietly.” The IAM pledged this week that if it did withdraw the petition, it would continue its campaign to unionize Boeing’s plant and push for a future vote. “At this point, it’s hard to tell the difference between Boeing and Nikki Haley,” IAM spokesperson Larkin said. “The implication that people are left with is that if you support collective bargaining rights in South Carolina, you are somehow opposing the official positions of South Carolina.” 

The bottom line: South Carolina’s governor has made defeating a unionization drive at a Boeing plant into a personal cause.

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