Union vote set at Boeing's South Carolina plants, stokes labor rift

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 25, 2015 12:45 PM

By Harriet McLeod

NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) - Boeing Co faces a union authorization vote next month by thousands of workers at its jetliner facilities in South Carolina, setting up a showdown in their long-running battle in the strongly anti-union state.

The U.S. National Labor Relations Board scheduled the vote for April 22 after Boeing and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) agreed to waive a hearing on the matter on Tuesday.

A yes vote would authorize the IAM to bargain for workers at the $750 million plant that Boeing opened in 2011. The NLRB had previously alleged that Boeing built the plant in part to retaliate against the IAM for past strikes in Washington state, where Boeing builds most of its jetliners.

A bitter 2008 machinists' strike curbed Boeing's production and cost the company an estimated $2 billion. The IAM is Boeing's largest union, representing more than 34,000 employees.

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley has been outspoken in her criticism of unions, calling them "thugs" and "bullies". She was quoted in local media last year as saying she discouraged "any companies that have unions from wanting to come to South Carolina because we don't want to taint the water."

The IAM began the union organizing effort in 2012, and earlier this month petitioned the NLRB for a vote, saying it had support from more than the required minimum of 30 percent of eligible workers.

The union says members have complained of poor working conditions caused by a succession of factory floor managers at the plant, which suffered production problems last year that affected 787 production, though it did not stop Boeing from hitting its target for 787 deliveries.

Boeing is spending a further $1 billion to expand the South Carolina facilities, and said last year it will build the forthcoming 787-10 exclusively at the South Carolina plant.

The vote will take place at five plant locations in North Charleston and nearby Ladson, where Boeing builds 787-8 and 787-9 widebody commercial airplanes and has propulsion production facilities.

The union and Boeing estimate that about 3,000 workers should be included in the bargaining unit.

Boeing was not immediately available for comment.

Boeing is fighting the union effort with advertisements and a website, WeAreBoeingSC.com. The IAM is explaining worker rights at its website boeingworkers.com.

(Additional reporting, writing by Alwyn Scott; Editing by Alan Crosby)