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Boeing SC workers vote down unionization

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Mike Evans, lead S.C. organizer for the Machinists union, spoke to reporters at the union's North Charleston headquarters following the election results Wednesday night. (Photo/Liz Segrist)

Boeing S.C. workers rejected unionization today, meaning the Boeing Co. will maintain a direct relationship with workers at the 787 Dreamliner campus in North Charleston.

The vote was overwhelming, with 2,097 out of 2,828 workers — 74% — choosing to reject unionization through the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

Around 3,000 production workers out of the 8,000 employees were eligible to vote in the election, which took place throughout the day at Boeing’s North Charleston facilities. The National Labor Relations Board will certify the results over the next week or so.

The mood was somber at the union headquarters following the vote. Reporters gathered in the office, located in a strip mall off Dorchester Road in North Charleston, for a news conference with union leaders following the vote tally. Mike Evans, lead S.C. organizer for the Machinists union, said Boeing led "a very effective smear campaign."

"Obviously, the outcome is not what I was hoping for, but this is the labor movement," Evans said. "It isn't easy."

Evans said the union will evaluate whether to keep its North Charleston office open, as well as whether to pursue future elections.

“We’re disappointed the workers at Boeing South Carolina will not yet have the opportunity to see all the benefits that come with union representation,” Evans said in an earlier statement. “But more than anything, we are disheartened they will have to continue to work under a system that suppresses wages, fosters inconsistency and awards only a chosen few.”

Workers must wait one year before another election can be held, according to NLRB rules. The IAM said it plans “on remaining in close contact with union supporters at Boeing and members of the Charleston community to figure out the best path moving forward.”

“Ultimately it will be the workers who dictate what happens next,” Evans said. “We’ve been fortunate enough to talk with hundreds of Boeing workers over the past few years. Nearly every one of them, whether they support the union or not, have improvements they want to see at Boeing. Frankly, they deserve better.”

For Boeing leadership and anti-union workers, the election results are a big win ahead of a big milestone for the plant. President Donald Trump is planning to attend Friday's rollout of the first 787-10 Dreamliner, which is built exclusively at Boeing's North Charleston facilities.

“It is great to have this vote behind us as we come together to celebrate that event,” said Joan Robinson-Berry, vice president and general manager of Boeing S.C., in a news release.

Boeing and the IAM have campaigned fiercely over the past few months, with a flood of advertisements, all-company meetings and union rallies.

Boeing S.C. leaders have repeatedly said they want to have a direct relationship with the North Charleston employees. They said unionization would have impeded workers’ ability to brainstorm and collaborate on solutions to production issues.

Unionization of the Boeing plant — one of the largest manufacturing facilities in South Carolina — would have come as a shock in a typically anti-union red state. South Carolina has the lowest unionization rate in the country, with 2.1% of the state’s workforce represented by a union in 2015, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Many politicians, including former Gov. Nikki Haley, are fiercely opposed to unions planting roots in the state. Many have said unionization would hurt state efforts to recruit and retain companies. South Carolina has become known as a manufacturing powerhouse in recent years as Boeing, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz, Michelin and BMW have either set up shop or expanded longtime operations.

With union membership in general declining in recent years, securing such a major win in South Carolina would likely have served as a big selling point for future campaigns across the country.

The union had promised to negotiate for more consistent work schedules, more respect from management and higher wages. Workers have said they want wages on par with Washington counterparts, who also work on 787s. Boeing has said wages are dependent on each region’s cost of living.

Some workers had argued that Charleston’s rising popularity has made it a more expensive place to live and wages are not keeping pace. One Boeing S.C. employee, who relocated from New York to work in composite manufacturing at the North Charleston facility, said, “People are not used to decent-paying jobs here.”

“A lot of people in South Carolina haven’t had the opportunity to make this kind of money before, so maybe they don’t feel like they have the self-worth to ask for higher wages,” said the worker, who asked to remain anonymous but verified employment with a badge.

He said Boeing workers in South Carolina are not being paid equally compared to Washington state workers who do the same work.

Following the vote, Robinson-Berry said the Boeing campus "will continue to move forward as one team."

“We have a bright future ahead of us and are eager to focus on the accomplishments of this great team and to developing new opportunities," she said.

Reach Liz Segrist at 843-849-3119.

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