With few labor unions in SC, will Boeing workers vote to join one?

Workers assemble Boeing 787 Dreamliners at the company's massive assembly plant in North Charleston. On Wednesday, Boeing production workers will vote on whether to join the Machinists union.
Workers assemble Boeing 787 Dreamliners at the company's massive assembly plant in North Charleston. On Wednesday, Boeing production workers will vote on whether to join the Machinists union. AP/File photo

When the approximately 3,000 workers at Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner plant in North Charleston vote Wednesday on whether to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, they will be doing so in the state most opposed to unions.

South Carolina has overtaken North Carolina as the state with the lowest rate of union workers in the nation at 1.6 percent. That’s down from 2.1 percent in 2015, according to a January report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Within the state, Columbia dropped from 2.4 percent in 2014 to 1.1 percent in 2015, according to a Georgia State University study of unionization in the nation’s metro areas. Charleston dropped from 2.4 percent to 0.8 percent.

The anti-union sentiment “goes back to the history of slavery,” said Hoyt Wheeler, distinguished professor emeritus of management at the University of South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business, who served as an arbitrator between unions and management for 41 years.

“South Carolina has always been about cheap labor,” he said. “That’s how it lured the textile mills here after the Civil War in the 1880s. And South Carolina is a place where you have very high influence by the ruling class, which is the business class.”

But Catherine Templeton, a self-proclaimed “union buster” who served in two cabinet positions in former Gov. Nikki Haley’s administration, said labor organizations are antiquated, unnecessary and geared more to self preservation than workers’ rights.

“They are not needed,” the Irmo native said from her home in Mount Pleasant. “We have passed a myriad of labor laws that make them unnecessary. Occupational and Safety Health Administration, the Equal Pay Act, child labor laws, immigration laws, wage and hour laws, the Equal Opportunity Act, Human Relations Commission, and more. And then there are the courts.”

She said companies in South Carolina are fair to their employees. “When you have employers like we do in South Carolina, unions are not needed.”

The drop in union membership is not just a regional trend, the Bureau of Labor Statics report shows. The national union membership rate was 10.7 percent in 2016, down 0.4 percentage points from 2015, according to the January report.

The national rate declined even though three of the four states with the highest rates of union memberships – New York, Connecticut and Washington – all had rate increases in 2016. The new rates are 23.6 percent in New York, 17.5 percent in Connecticut and 17.4 percent in Washington, which is home to Boeing’s other Dreamliner assembly plant.

Wheeler, the USC professor emeritus, said the decline in unions nationally is caused by labor organizations losing not only employees of private firms, but public sector workers as well. Public sector workers, at 34.4 percent, have a unionization rate five times larger than the private sector, the January report showed.

Dead out of the gate

Unions in South Carolina were pretty much dead out of the gate, Wheeler said, when a national textile workers strike was quashed across the South in 1934 during the Depression.

Another blow was dealt in 1954, when South Carolina became one of the first “right-to-work” states, which meant workers were not required to join a union even if the company they worked for had one. Today, 28 states have right-to-work laws.

The law didn’t prohibit labor unions. But the state has few of them today, and most represent government workers and contractors, security firms and a few industrial workers.

In 2014, seven labor votes were held in South Carolina, according to the National Labor Relations Board regional office in Atlanta. All were union victories.

The largest of these was a 48-15 vote by Savannah River Site guards within the G4S Government Solutions security firm. The smallest was a 2-0 vote among United Parcel Service workers.

In 2015, unions won three small votes, but the machinist union lost a large one. Workers at the Harsco Rail railroad track maintenance and construction firm in West Columbia turned back a union bid, 173-77.

In 2016, unions won all three union votes. The biggest was at the Autoneum auto parts plants in Aiken, where the workers voted 74-72 to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

Templeton, who spent five years as an attorney fighting unions nationally, said unionization would cripple South Carolina’s ability to recruit companies and create jobs. The cost of doing business in a union state is about 30 percent higher, she said, forcing companies to move to non-union states as “a business decision.”

“Before Boeing had the first employee on the ground, the union was trying to keep those jobs out of South Carolina,” she said. “That union tried to hurt us from the beginning.”

Templeton said she doesn’t believe Boeing would pull out of South Carolina if the workers vote to unionize this week, “but why would you want to expand in a union state?”

Boeing vote debate

The International Association of Machinists union, or IAM, has been organizing in North Charleston for 2.5 years, union officials said. A scheduled vote in 2015 was canceled, but they said Wednesday’s vote will be held. The results are expected about 7 p.m.

Jonathan Battaglia, a 2012 University of South Carolina graduate who now serves as the machinist union’s assistant communications director, said more people will warm up to unions as they better understand why they exist.

“The biggest hurdle is unfamiliarity,” he said. “But once (the workers) learn that a union is really you, and that you are sitting across from your employer asking for what you deserve, then you can start having a conversation.”

The machinists’ South Carolina organizer, Mike Evans, echoed Battaglia. “There is a harsher assumption here because so few people have been exposed to unions. It starts with information.”

Evans predicted a union victory on Wednesday.

“There is a desperate need for wages, consistency and respect,” he said, noting Boeing workers in South Carolina make about 35 percent less than colleagues in Washington state. But Boeing workers “are starting to understand a union contract comes with more than union wages, it’s protection.”

Joan Robinson-Berry, vice president and general manager at Boeing South Carolina, issued a statement last month criticizing the union’s record in North Charleston, according to The Seattle Times.

She recalled what she said was the poor contract the union signed in 2007 with Boeing supplier Vought, before Boeing took over the plant, which led to the workers voting to decertify the union two years later.

She cited remarks by IAM representatives in Washington state during the 2009 campaign to win a second 787 Dreamliner assembly line that contrasted the experienced workforce in Everett with the lack of experience in North Charleston. She characterized those remarks as “repeated insults regarding our teammates’ abilities.”

“While we’ve continued to grow and improve here at Boeing South Carolina, nothing has changed with the IAM,” Robinson-Berry said, according to The Seattle Times. “Our teammates have good memories. They’ve not forgotten the IAM’s poor history here.”

Robinson-Berry also responded to the IAM’s reference to the higher wages of Boeing workers in the Puget Sound region. She said the company pays its South Carolina workforce “at or above market today in this region.”

USC’s professor emeritus Wheeler wouldn’t make a call about Wednesday’s vote.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Management goes completely berserk” when union votes are taken. “But so far the sky hasn’t fallen.”

Templeton predicted defeat on Wednesday.

“I don’t think it will pass this time; I certainly hope not,” she said. “But I can tell you with certainty they will keep coming back year after year after year. They have thrown down the gauntlet.”

The Seattle Times contributed.

Lowest percentage of union workers by state

South Carolina – 1.6%

North Carolina – 3%

Georgia – 3.9%

Arkansas – 3.9%

Texas – 4%

Louisiana – 4.2%

Virginia – 4.3%

Arizona – 4.5%

Utah – 4.7%

North Dakota – 5.4%