Boeing wins decert vote in S.C.

October 6, 2009

Darrin Hoop analyzes a recent vote by workers at a Boeing plant in Charleston, S.C., to decertify the union.

CHARLESTON, S.C.--Machinists at a Boeing plant voted on September 10 to decertify the International Association of Machinists (IAM) as their bargaining representative. By a 199-to-68 vote, the workers, who build the aft fuselages for the future Dreamliner 787, ended their short, less than two-year relationship with the IAM.

The plant was first organized back in October 2007, when, by a 67-to-60 margin, the workers voted to join the union. More than a year later, the workers' first contract was ratified by 92 percent of the workers, according to the IAM.

But according to the Seattle Times, only 13 people turned up for the vote. It was taken one day before the one-year anniversary of the IAM's initial organizing of the plant. As Dominic Gates wrote, "In the absence of a contract by that anniversary, workers could have voted again on Machinists representation and potentially ousted the union then."

The contract offered only an annual raise of 1.5 percent, plus a possible merit bonus of up to 2 percent that would be determined by managers.

The Charleston Regional Business Journal reported that the union held the vote at the last minute because Vought Aircraft Industries--from which Boeing bought the plant on July 30 of this year, which also happened to be the day the decertification petition was filed with the National Labor Relations Board--was about to lay off most of its workers the day after the ratification vote.

While the contract proposal was management's offer, it did contain a key element that the union had fought for--the right to be recalled from layoffs based on seniority. Another sore point for the South Carolina machinists may have been getting laid off for the entire two months of the IAM's strike against Boeing last September and October.

For its part, IAM members, including officials from the national headquarters and from the Puget Sound district, campaigned for the union by going door to door to the homes of Charleston workers. Unfortunately, the higher average pay and benefits of unionized machinists wasn't enough to convince the workers to remain in the union.

THERE'S NO doubt that part of the pressure on the workers to get rid of the union stemmed from Boeing's plans to build a second assembly line for the 787. Right now, Charleston is in direct competition with the main 787 line in Everett, Wash. While there are a couple other cities Boeing is looking into, Everett and Charleston appear to be the front-runners.

In the midst of the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, Boeing has used the location of the second 787 line to play both sets of machinists off against one another.

It's likely that many of the Charleston workers are aware of the jobs that have been created by companies like BMW shifting its operations to Spartanburg, S.C. in 1992. BMW has invested nearly $6 billion in South Carolina, created 5,400 jobs and its suppliers have invested an additional $2.1 billion in the South Carolina economy.

Meanwhile, in Washington, Boeing has used the threat of a possible 787 line in South Carolina to try and get the IAM to agree to a no-strike clause that would prevent the union from striking when its contract expires in 2012. Washington state politicians as well as Boeing officials would like the IAM to agree to a third-party arbitration to solve any future contractual disputes.

For a union that has struck Boeing four times since 1989, giving up its most important source of strength--its ability to withdraw its labor and shut down one of the world's richest corporations--would be economic suicide.

Local politicians, like Republican State Sen. Mike Hewitt, the Senate minority leader and a member of Gov. Christine Gregoire's Council on Aerospace, are calling the decertification "a serious blow to our quest to keep the second 787 production line in Washington."

"We already know that the relationship between labor and management is a top concern for Boeing," Hewitt said. "Today's vote puts Washington at a major competitive disadvantage."

But statements from several unlikely allies should be used by the IAM to refuse any concessions. Forbes magazines recently released its annual "Best States to Do Business" report, which "measures six vital categories for businesses: costs, labor supply, regulatory environment, current economic climate, growth prospects and quality of life." Washington is number two behind Virginia, while South Carolina ranked 25th.

In addition, the conservative Tax Foundation also recently released its 2010 State Business Tax Climate Index. It's intended "as a tool for lawmakers, businesses and individuals alike to gauge how their states' tax systems compare." Washington has the ninth friendliest tax system for business while South Carolina ranks 26th.

Aerospace industry analyst Scott Hamilton, who runs, argues Boeing should choose Everett because it has an "incredibly experienced workforce that is, after all, solving all the problems that have come from [the 787 partners in] Japan, Italy and, yes, Charleston."

"With a high-risk program, one where the risk remains, why would you want to put a second assembly line anywhere else, even setting aside the labor issues?" Hamilton said.

Boeing management's decision on the site selection is expected by the end of the year. Despite the decertification defeat of the IAM in South Carolina, the IAM should stand its ground and maintain its right to strike in Everett. Only by maintaining that leverage will the union remain strong enough to potentially show workers in South Carolina and elsewhere the power and value of union membership.

As we near the anniversary of the machinists' strike, one thing for sure is clear--Boeing never relents from its attempts to weaken the union. The IAM will always have a battle on its hands to maintain its current power and to convince new workers to join it in the future.

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