NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — Two days before South Carolina Boeing employees vote on whether to join a union, workers gathered Monday to hear from union leaders why they should vote to organize in a state where union membership is the lowest in the country.
Workers and members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers for an hour rallied at a hotel just a mile from Boeing’s North Charleston operation where, on Wednesday, nearly 3,000 workers are set to vote on whether to form a union and be represented by the Machinists.
Organizers, community leaders and members of other unions voiced messages of support to the few hundred workers gathered in a large conference room. Ned Blevins, an Orthodox priest from Knoxville, Tennessee, even told attendees they would be “doing God’s work” both in standing up to company bosses and in fighting for their rights to unionize.
Chicago-based Boeing employs about 8,000 workers in North Charleston, where it makes the 787 Dreamliner. Engineers at the 100,000-square-foot center work on everything from electromagnetics and advanced aircraft production to chemical technology. Their work is used not only for the company’s commercial airliners but in defense and aerospace applications.
The Machinists petitioned the National Labor Relations Board for a vote nearly two years ago but called it off after organizers said they’d been threatened during home visits to plant employees. The union has had members in the Charleston area before, winning the right to represent workers at Vought Aircraft Industries in 2007, a plant that Boeing later bought.
Less than two years later, plant workers voted overwhelmingly against union representation.
The global aviation company came to South Carolina in part because the state has a minuscule union presence. For decades, state politicians and business leaders have preached that unions hurt the workforce, not help it.
During Gov. Nikki Haley’s first year in office, the National Labor Relations Board went to court to block Boeing from making its Dreamliner jet at a new North Charleston factory, saying Chicago-based Boeing built the South Carolina plant in retaliation for past union strikes at the company’s Washington state operations. The NLRB officially dropped its high-profile case later after the Machinists union in Washington approved a 4-year contract extension with Boeing and agreed to withdraw its charge that the company violated federal labor laws. Under the deal, Boeing promised to build the new version of its 737 airplane in Washington state.
South Carolina is a right to work state, meaning workers can’t be compelled to join unions, even if the organizations represent them. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the state’s union membership — 1.6 percent — is the lowest in the country.
But some of Boeing’s South Carolina workforce was previously represented by unions in other places. On Monday, mechanic Steve Winckles said he was a stop steward while working at an airport in New York and doesn’t buy management’s argument that union representation could actually mean more conflict.
“I think we need some stability,” he said. “It’s time.”