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Boeing S.C. election a blow to Machinists union

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Union leaders are not yet sure if they will keep their North Charleston office open following Wednesday's election results. (Photo/Liz Segrist)

Boeing South Carolina production workers’ decision not to unionize did not come as a huge shock to many, but the amount by which the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers lost was surprising to several analysts.

“I think the percentage caught everybody by surprise,” said Joseph Seiner, a labor law expert and law professor at the University of South Carolina. “Typically, a union — particularly an experienced union like the IAM — doesn’t call for an election unless they expect to have the votes and some cushion. To lose by almost 75% is a very, very surprising result. It shows to the extent that South Carolina is very much an anti-union state.”

The vote was overwhelming, with 2,097 out of 2,828 workers — 74% — choosing to reject unionization at the North Charleston plant.

Around 3,000 production workers out of the company’s 8,000 S.C. employees were eligible to vote in the election, which took place Wednesday at Boeing’s North Charleston facilities. The results were released around 8:30 p.m.

Union organizers seemed disheartened by the results during a news conference Wednesday night at the IAM headquarters.

“Obviously, the outcome is not what I was hoping for,” said Mike Evans, lead S.C. organizer for the Machinists union, “but this is the labor movement. It isn’t easy.”

Evans said he is not certain whether the Machinists union will keep its North Charleston office open or close it. Another election cannot be attempted for at least 1 year, per National Labor Relations Board rules. He said the workers will dictate the union’s next move in terms of campaigning.

Seiner said he does not expect the union to attempt another election unless the IAM has a major reason to expect more support, such as an economic downturn, mass layoffs or a decrease in wages for Boeing workers.

He said the union had two factors working in its favor — a shortened election cycle, lasting about three weeks, because of a new regulation made under the Obama administration; and recent news of layoffs at the North Charleston plant.

Boeing S.C. sent about 600 workers voluntary layoff offers in January; they have not disclosed how many accepted. Boeing Co. said layoffs are anticipated at plants across the country in 2017 amid efforts to cut production costs.

“If they (the union) had the economic climate favoring them and the timing favoring them and they still lost, I don’t see them coming back in a year for another vote,” Seiner said.

He added that Wednesday’s vote will not likely affect other unionization efforts across the country in more pro-union regions, such as Washington state, the Northeast or the Rust Belt.

He said the results do send a message about South Carolina’s desire to keep businesses union-free, which economic developers and politicians often use a selling point during recruitment efforts.

Former Gov. Nikki Haley, now the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was vehemently opposed to unionization of S.C. facilities, saying the mostly union-free environment attracts large manufacturers. The state has the lowest unionization rate in the country, at 2.1%.

S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster has said the state does not need unions. Several business groups and leaders released statements after the vote, including Ted Pitts, president and CEO of the S.C. Chamber of Commerce: “Businesses value the direct relationship between employees and their employers because together they can accomplish more. All you have to do is look at the Rust Belt to see the impact unions have on jobs.”

Scott Hamilton, an aerospace analyst who writes Leeham News and Comment, called the election outcome “a humiliating defeat” for the IAM. He said it could have negative repercussions for the IAM presence in the Seattle area.

“Boeing will be able to continue to hold non-union Charleston over Seattle’s IAM when it comes time to select the site for the New Mid-range Airplane (NMA) for the Middle of the Market sector,” Leeham wrote in a recent post.

The vote wrapped up ahead of President Donald Trump’s visit to Boeing S.C. on Friday to see the rollout of the first 787-10 Dreamliner.

Reach Liz Segrist at 843-849-3119.

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