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Machinists cancel union vote at Boeing

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The International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers Friday withdrew for at least six months their petition for an election scheduled for Wednesday to unionize Boeing Co.’s North Charleston plant.

The union cited a “toxic environment and gross violation of workers’s lawful organizing rights.”

If the union had pressed ahead with the controversial vote – being waged in a strongly anti-union state – and failed to win, organizers would have had to wait at least a year to schedule another try at passage.

“An atmosphere of threats, harassment and unprecedented political interference has intimated workers to the point we don’t believe a free and fair election is possible,” the union said in a statement issued Friday morning.

IAM’s lead organizer, Mike Evans, said two union organizers were threatened at gunpoint and other workers reported hostile confrontations. The IAM conducted home visits of more than 1,700 Boeing workers in its decision to postpone, Evans said.

“After speaking with Boeing workers who we were previously unable to reach, we’ve determined now is not the right time for an election,” he said. Home visits were suspended and unfair labor practice charges were filed by the union with the National Labor Relations Board, the union said.

Boeing put on a massive advertising campaign against the union effort. Evans used about 100 Puget Sound-based union staff to knock on doors in South Carolina and gauge support for passage of the petition to organize.

Media reports began surfacing earlier in the week indicating a possible cancellation of the April 22 scheduled vote.

While more than 3,000 machinists would have been unionized had the vote succeeded, Boeing’s entire 7,500 work force at the Charleston plant would have been affected.

The union said Friday Boeing workers at the Charleston plant had reached out to the union regarding a number of issues including forced overtime, rising health care costs and “a lack of respect on the shop floor.”

Wages for Boeing’s South Carolina workers compared to the wages paid by the aerospace giant at some of its other locations – specifically, in Washington state – had also risen as an issue behind the union effort in some media reports.

Boeing, meanwhile, responding to the cancellation decision, said it would look at issues at the $6 billion plant announced in the Palmetto State in 2009, and be responsive.

But Boeing also quickly pointed to the IAM’s previous remarks that it would delay a vote if it lacked the support of the Boeing workforce.

“I want to thank the team for their patience and professionalism throughout this process, but most importantly their passion, spirit and determination to move forward together,” said Beverly Wyse, Boeing South Carolina vice president and general manager. “We now have the opportunity to make Boeing South Carolina and our local community an even better place to work and live. And that’s what we’re going to do – together.”

The IAM filed its petition for an election with the National Labor Relations Board in March, saying that a significant number of Boeing workers had signed authorization cards showing interest in union representation.

Under somewhat odd labor rules, only 30 percent of a workforce is needed to set the stage for a union vote. More than 1,400 machinists would have been unionized had the vote succeeded, but Boeing’s entire 7,500 work force at the Charleston plant would have been affected.

The IAM already represents more than 35,000 Boeing employees at 24 sites nationwide, the union said, but South Carolina has deep roots opposing labor unions. Only 2.2 percent of the South Carolina workforce has union membership, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics, the second-lowest membership total in the U.S., behind only North Carolina.

Reach Burris at (803) 771-8398

Twitter: @RoddieBurris

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