Economy First Look

Boeing workers overwhelmingly reject union, in another blow to labor

While the outcome was expected in the nation's most staunchly anti-union state, it's a reminder of the ongoing decline of the organized labor across America.

Mike Evans (r.), a group leader with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, speaks to the media at IAM headquarters after workers rejected union representation at the Boeing South Carolina plant in North Charleston, S.C., Feb. 15, 2017.
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Workers at Boeing’s South Carolina plant voted overwhelmingly against unionizing on Wednesday, an expected decision in the nation’s most anti-union state, and the latest blow to an organized labor movement seeking to expand its influence under President Trump’s administration.

In a secret ballot run by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) at polling stations throughout the aircraft makers’ North Charleston plant, 74 percent of the 2,828 workers voted to decline to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM).

"We will continue to move forward as one team," Joan Robinson-Berry, vice president in charge of Boeing South Carolina, told the Post and Courier.

In a statement, IAM lead organizer Mike Evans said: "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."

Union membership in the United States has been declining for decades as so-called right-to-work legislation, which bans unions from requiring workers to pay dues to a labor although they can still benefit from any deals struck, have gained a stronger foothold.

The most recent example came earlier this month when Missouri became the 28th state to pass a right-to-work law under the state’s newly elected Republican Governor, Eric Greitens. His predecessor, a Democrat, opposed the legislation.

Arguments for and against such laws, generally fall along partisan lines, with Republicans saying they attract businesses and therefore jobs to a state, while opponents, generally Democrats, say they weaken worker rights. Studies either way are inconclusive.

For Boeing, the vote is the latest episode in a long-running battle between Boeing’s management and IAM in South Carolina. A union attempt to organize a vote back in 2015 failed after then-Gov. Nikki Haley, now Mr. Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, led a strong anti-union campaign, Bloomberg reported.

The workers' decision came after Boeing and the state’s business lobby unleashed a barrage of advertising on local television, which many workers saw playing on screens in the breakroom. The group outspent the union $485,560 to $18,750, according to Kantar Media/CMAG. There were roughly 1,780 anti-union television ad spots were broadcast, compared with 118 for IAM, Bloomberg reported.

Boeing also held meetings with management and suggested that organizing could lead to jobs being offshored to China. Postcards depicting an empty facility and piles of household products representing the cost of union dues were also used.

The decision by Boeing’s South Carolina workers is not likely to change the company’s relations with its 30,000 workers that IAM members at its Seattle factories.

Boeing spent $750 million to build the South Carolina factory after an IAM strike in 2008 shut down production in Washington.

The South Carolina vote comes two days before Trump’s visit to the South Carolina factory, where the company will unveil the 787-10, its largest Dreamliner.

Under NLRB rules, IAM will have to wait another 12 months before it can petition for another vote on potential unionization at the South Carolina plant.

This report contains material from Reuters.