They trickled in and out of the North Charleston hotel meeting room, men in Boeing polo shirts meeting with a pair in red International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers polos.
The workers had come to learn more about organizing their plane-making plant, and the union representatives were there to field their questions and concerns.
During a lull in the intermittent meetings, Tommy Mayfield, the IAM Grand Lodge representative for the Southern territory, walked over in a pair of well-worn cowboy boots to explain what has been happening largely out of the public eye.
“I've been meeting with these folks for a while,” said Mayfield, a gruff-talking but friendly Alabama native. “Support is very strong.”
That's right, Boeing's biggest union is back in the Lowcountry, and despite the recent history and South Carolina's right-to-work laws, it's making inroads. Mayfield said there could be a vote administered by the National Labor Relations Board “within a year.”
While only about 10 employees passed through over the course of an hour Tuesday afternoon, Mayfield said there were more earlier in the day and that “close to two dozen people” met with him after the second shift let out around midnight.
He said there are “greater than 50 people” signed up and likely more sympathetic or at least curious Boeing South Carolina employees. But the anti-union sentiment in the state makes the organizing process very sensitive.
“The biggest thing is the fear factor,” he said.
There has been a regular Machinist presence in and around what is now the Boeing South Carolina complex for years, but last week's meeting came into public view after recent news reports.
Asked about the organizing effort, Boeing released a statement: “We're continuously working on making Boeing South Carolina a place where teammates have a voice and can speak for themselves without having to rely on a third party to speak for them.”
Dennis Murray, a manufacturing engineer in the aft-body factory, knows the whole history firsthand. Murray was working at Vought Aircraft Industries when the Machinists narrowly won representation rights at the North Charleston aft-body factory in November 2007. After a fraught couple of years and Boeing's purchase of that facility, Murray was behind the drive to vote out the IAM in September 2009.
Then the Machinists claimed Boeing built the North Charleston final assembly line in retaliation for past strikes in the Puget Sound, and the resulting National Labor Relations Board complaint threatened the new South Carolina facility.
When the NLRB filed an unfair labor practice complaint against Boeing, Murray was one of three local workers who sought to intervene in the case. And almost a year after that case settled, as part of a grand bargain involving a new contract for the IAM in the Puget Sound, Murray is now party to another NLRB complaint, this time charging the IAM with retaliation against him and his local coworkers.
Murray said the Machinists have been “poking around literally ever since they got booted out.”
“Both before and after the elections and throughout the construction and as well as the NLRB case, the IAM has maintained contact with supporters inside the facility just as they have maintained contact with us,” IAM spokesman Frank Larkin said.
Scott Hamilton, a longtime Boeing observer near Seattle, has long predicted the union would be back.
“I look at it as the day (the IAM) was decertified down there, it was only a matter of time before the Machinists, or some other union ... came in there to organize the touch labor,” Hamilton said last week. He added “it's only a matter of time” before the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace “tries to organize the engineers down there.”
So far, it's mainly been the Machinists, and that means Mayfield, though this week he was joined by an IAM representative from Seattle.
Meet and greet
Mayfield has been inviting “Brothers and Sisters,” potentially interested members of “the Bargaining Unit,” to afternoon drop-in “informational” or “organizing” sessions at area hotels since at least the spring, including two meetings last month, according to emails obtained by The Post and Courier. This month, the solicitation went out by mail, an apparent escalation of the organizing effort.
Mayfield said he got addresses from people at the plant and from publicly available sources such as the phone book.
Aside from the meetings, the union also filed an unfair labor practice charge against Boeing this spring, alleging two occasions in March and April when a Boeing supervisor or manager discouraged unionization. The NLRB accepted the charge and argued the complaint before an administrative law judge in North Charleston last month, but there has been no decision yet.
Murray said the people at the plant who are interested now in organizing are generally new to Boeing and weren't around when the union was voted in, then out, when Vought owned the aft-body plant.
“To me, I just kind of find it rather interesting that here's the union that we had represent us supposedly, and they (mistreated workers) royally,” Murray said. “So we got rid of them and then they tried to use the NLRB to shut (us) down. But yet they're still trying to get in. Bottom line, it's all about control. The union does not like the fact that Boeing has a nonunion facility that makes airplanes because now they can't shut down the whole line.”
U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint was also incredulous this week when told Boeing South Carolina workers were in the process of organizing.
“It would blow me away if the employees of Boeing here were so foolish as to unionize when that was one of the key reasons that this plant was built,” he said during a trip to Charleston. “I'm surprised there's even one employee there is willing to sit down and talk.”
“Boeing will keep shifting business here as long as we're a business-friendly environment,” DeMint continued. “To mess that up does not make any sense.”
Mayfield said the union has no such goal. The Machinists want Boeing to prosper, he said.
“Never and forever would the Machinists union ... want to come in here and negotiate Boeing out of Charleston,” he said. “That's cutting off your nose to spite your face.”
Aside from concerns about overtime that several workers have raised, Mayfield said employees also are concerned about other conditions of work, such as how shifts are assigned and fair opportunities for promotion.
“And at the bottom of the list, believe it or not, is wages,” he said.
Mayfield was careful to add that Boeing South Carolina workers are aware that their counterparts in the Puget Sound are paid more.
Dennis Nolan, who has taught labor law for 34 years, said the Machinists have been positioning itself just in case the organizing stars align.
“What the union wants to do is maintain a presence and develop contacts and a few potential leaders and then if something happens ... and there's a lot of dissatisfaction, the union could be there to capitalize on it,” said Nolan, who is a mediator and the Webster Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Labor Law at the University of South Carolina.
Hamilton, the Boeing observer, said the airframer is “obviously motivated to keep the union out.”
“But Boeing also has a history of misjudging what the mood of the employees is,” he said, citing as one example the 2008 Machinists vote that triggered a damaging strike four years ago.
He believes the only way the local workforce unionizes is if the company gives it reason to.
“It will take Boeing management mistreating the workers in some fashion,” he said.
The other union that represents a large number of Boeing workers in the Puget Sound, Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace, has not been as active as the Machinists in North Charleston, said spokesman Bill Dugovich.
“We'd certainly be receptive to employees if they asked for that, but at this point, we've responded to inquiries by individuals and provided them information, but it hasn't risen above that level yet,” Dugovich said.
Nolan, the USC labor law professor, said it's still too early to say whether Boeing South Carolina will eventually become unionized.
The only way it could happen, “assuming that Boeing resists,” would be through an NLRB election, Nolan said.
To stage an election, the Machinists would have to obtain signatures of at least 30 percent of the proposed bargaining unit. There are some 6,100 who work at Boeing South Carolina, but the bargaining unit would be a considerably smaller subset of that, including blue-collar mechanics and assemblers, but excluding any contractors, managers and white-collar workers.
Mayfield suggested the eventual bargaining unit could eventually include as many as 2,000 Boeing employees.
Murray emphasized that he speaks only for himself and not for Boeing. He said he prefers to deal with company management directly and not pay union dues. But there are people at Boeing South Carolina who feel differently, he said, and whether his coworkers unionize is ultimately in Boeing's hands.
“It gets to the point where it's purely up to the company,” Murray said. “If they decide they want to have us remain union-free, all they've got to do is keep people satisfied, have them feel like they're being appreciated and that they can't possibly get a deal through the union. Then, the union won't have a chance to get in.”
But if his workers feel like they're “not getting their fair share or being worked like dogs, then they're going to turn to ... an outside source to help mediate,” he added.
Reach Brendan Kearney at 937-5906 and follow him on Twitter at @kearney_brendan.
Editor's note: Earlier versions of this story need correcting. Dennis Murray was misidentified in earlier versions of this story, and a quote from him needed clarification. Also, Dennis Nolan's career information was incorrect. The Post and Courier regrets the errors.