South Carolina Boeing workers vote to unionize in major win for labor rights

Elham Khatami

Elham Khatami, Think Progress

Flight-line workers at Boeing’s South Carolina plant pushed back against the company’s executive team in voting overwhelmingly in favor of unionization Thursday, marking a rare win for organized labor in the South.

Employees at the aerospace giant’s North Charleston plant voted 104-65 to have the International Association of Machinists (IAM) represent them in collective bargaining, according to The Post and Courier, despite Boeing’s efforts to dissuade the workers from organizing. Prior to the vote, the company launched an anti-union social media campaign, arguing that such “micro-units” are prohibited by federal law, and tried to delay the election. Company spokesman Victor Scott said Boeing will appeal the decision.

“They stood up to a Goliath of a company,” Mike Evans, the IAM’s lead organizer, said, according to The Post and Courier. “They were in a very nasty campaign where they attacked individuals. We stayed on course with education and opportunity and respect and dignity going forward, and here we are today with a win. We’re very excited.”

Workers at Boeing’s North Charleston plant reached out to IAM last year, citing “changes to work rules, threatened layoffs and mandatory overtime on weekends,” as well as less-than-average hourly pay, The Post and Courier reported. In February 2017, about 2,800 North Charleston Boeing employees voted to reject unionization. Since then, company executives have cut employees’ pay raises from twice a year to once a year.

The 178 flight-line employees at the North Charleston campus (169 of whom cast ballots) make up approximately 3 percent of the company’s Charleston workforce, but despite that small number, the victory is a critical gain for the IAM and for unions in general, especially considering similar unionization efforts by Nissan and Volkswagen workers in the South have failed in recent years.

As The Post and Courier reported last year, South Carolina has the lowest organized labor rate in the country. The state is one of dozens across the South and the Midwest with “right-to-work” laws, which weaken unions by prohibiting mandatory agency fees, allowing non-union members to reap the same benefits of union membership without paying into it.

In 2014, then-Gov. Nikki Haley (R) pushed back against the prospect of bringing more manufacturing jobs to the state if workers intended to unionize.

“It’s not something we want to see happen,” Haley said. “We discourage any companies that have unions from wanting to come to South Carolina because we don’t want to taint the water.”

The small union formed by Boeing employees Thursday may be exactly what the South needs to reignite the labor movement, veteran union organizer and co-founder of the Southern Workers Assembly, Saladin Muhammad, told the Guardian last year. In fact, minority unions served as the foundation of the United States’ most massive organizing victories.

“Having a union doesn’t mean you have to have a majority of workers or a union contract. A union exists whenever workers come together to form an organization to build power,” he said. “Rebuilding the labor movement in the south is going to require us to get back to the basics of what a union is.”

The Boeing union victory comes at a critical time for labor rights in the United States. Over the past year, teachers across the country have staged protests and strikes to demand higher wages and more education funding.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is currently considering a case in which a public sector employee claims that mandatory agency fees violate his First Amendment rights because he is not a union member. If the court rules in favor of the employee, which is likely, it could deal a massive blow to public sector unionization efforts and strengthen right-to-work initiatives across the country.


Reposted from Think Progress