Boeing’s South Carolina Mechanics Reject Union in Blow to Labor

Updated on
  • NLRB tally shows 74% voted against worker organizing effort
  • IAM says it’s assessing next steps at 787 Dreamliner plant

Boeing Co. employees in South Carolina voted overwhelmingly against unionization, dealing a blow to the embattled labor movement’s efforts to expand its ranks under President Donald Trump.

The vote is a loss for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers but not a surprise in a right-to-work state traditionally hostile to collective bargaining. It comes two days ahead of the factory rollout of the largest 787 Dreamliner, Boeing’s marquee carbon-fiber jet, an event the president is expected to attend.

The labor defeat is the latest in a long-running struggle between Boeing’s management and the Machinists’ union, with the South Carolina plant a crucial battleground. An earlier attempt to organize workers in the state fizzled before a vote in 2015 amid anti-union campaigning and political pressure led by then-Governor Nikki Haley, who is now Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations.

Boeing decided to place a new final assembly line for its Dreamliners in the southern state to avoid strikes that had brought work to a halt in its traditional Puget Sound manufacturing base in 2008. The Chicago-based planemaker plans to build the 787-10 only at the factory and has room on its campus adjacent to Charleston’s airport to handle more production -- including the new middle-of-market aircraft family on its drawing board.

The union drive failed with 74 percent of voters against it, according to a National Labor Relations Board statement Wednesday.

“We will continue to move forward as one team,” said Joan Robinson-Berry, who heads Boeing’s operations in South Carolina.

Next Steps

The vote was the latest reverse for the already-shrinking U.S. labor movement, which on Thursday faces a state house vote on making New Hampshire the first right-to-work state in the Northeast, a measure that would ban mandatory union fees.

In South Carolina, right-to-work laws have helped drive union membership down to 1.6 percent of the workforce. State AFL-CIO president Erin McKee said Monday that organizers have been hearing from workers at many companies who were considering trying to unionize but were waiting to first see whether Boeing employees could pull it off.

Reached late Wednesday, McKee said what happens next at Boeing would depend on what workers chose to do. “Everybody’s got to wake up tomorrow and see where they stand, and digest what happened, and see where they want to go,” she said.

Labor organizers said they would remain in close contact with supporters as they determine their next steps. About 3,000 employees were eligible to vote. The union already represents about 30,000 of their co-workers in Washington state.

“Ultimately it will be the workers who dictate what happens next,” Mike Evans, the unionization campaign’s lead organizer, said in a statement.

Ad Campaign

Workers said they were subjected to an anti-union effort that included frequent mandatory “captive audience” meetings with management and suggestions from supervisors that organizing could cause jobs to be shipped to China. There were also props like postcards depicting an empty facility and a mountain of household products representing the cost of union dues.

Elizabeth Merida, a spokeswoman for Boeing, said last week its managers weren’t “making threats,” but rather shared “facts and data about the IAM and the importance of the vote.”

Boeing and a pro-business group flooded the Charleston airwaves in the weeks before the vote, outspending the union by an estimated $485,560 to $18,750, according to data from advertising tracker Kantar Media/CMAG. At least 1,780 anti-union television ad spots were broadcast, compared with 118 for the Machinists.

The anti-union campaign left some employees afraid of retaliation if they voiced support for organizing, said Randy Toler, a union supporter who’s worked at Boeing since 2013.

“It was just a month of constant pounding of negative anti-union information,” he said. “Just a constant barrage.”