As union talk recedes, Boeing’s Wyse works to build ‘healthy workforce strategy’

Terri Pope, American Airlines vice president of operations for Charlotte (middle left) and Beverly Wyse, vice president and general manager of Boeing South Carolina, high five each other after the North Charleston facility delivered its 100th 787 Dreamliner on Tuesday.

It’s been nearly a year since the International Association of Machinists union canceled plans to hold an election at Boeing Co.’s North Charleston campus, and Beverly Wyse says the sometimes-heated discussions that used to take place among workers on the production floor have all but disappeared.

“No, definitely not,” Wyse, vice president and general manager of Boeing South Carolina, said this week when asked if the union debate is still a part of the daily work life where Boeing builds its popular 787 Dreamliner commercial planes.

A year ago, Wyse told The Post and Courier that pro- and anti-union factions “feel passionate, and that comes out in the passion of discussion” on the production floor. Of course, that was during the heat of an ongoing union election campaign — an election the IAM canceled just days before it was to have taken place.

The IAM is still recruiting Boeing employees, and both sides are still spending money on advertisements and billboards stating their positions, but the passion seems to have died.

“I don’t want to work on a non-union strategy,” Wyse said this week. “I want to work on a healthy workforce strategy.”

To Wyse, that means giving workers more say on which shifts they want to work, celebrating successes — like the delivery this week of the 100th Dreamliner built at the North Charleston plant — and abolishing mandatory overtime on Sundays. Teams of roughly 20 workers apiece pick safety or quality projects they want to tackle, and they are recognized when that work is successful.

“The satisfaction they get when they see a project implemented and the area fundamentally improved is worth its weight in gold,” Wyse said.

Wyse came to South Carolina with a reputation for having a good rapport with workers. As vice president and general manager of Boeing’s 737 program in Renton, Wash., Wyse said her management style was “being in touch with the workforce and having a walk-the-floor mentality.”

That worked great in Renton, where workers are represented by a union, and it’s working at the non-union shop in North Charleston.

“We have demonstrated absolutely that you can have a successful relationship with and without a union,” Wyse said of her experiences on both coasts. “There’s an advantage here, though. You can think about any relationship you have from a business standpoint and most people would say it’s going to be far better if it can be direct.”

Frank Larkin, a national spokesman for the IAM, doesn’t buy the notion that a union gets in the way of the relationship between management and workers.

“The ‘third party’ argument falsely presumes some level of equality between workers and management,” Larkin said. “But in the absence of a contract, the deck is totally stacked in management’s favor. They are able to unilaterally set rules, wages and benefits, and then change them with or without notice. Workers should be able to choose for themselves if that arrangement works best for them.”

The IAM continues to ask Boeing workers to sign authorization cards that could be used to file an election petition with the National Labor Relations Board. The union must get signatures from at least 30 percent of the roughly 3,200 production and maintenance workers eligible for union membership. The IAM has declined to say how close it is to that goal.

Labor unions can be a tough sell in South Carolina, which has the nation’s lowest level of union membership at just 2.1 percent of the state’s salaried and hourly wage workers. That compares to the national average of 11.1 percent.

Boeing will continue to pay for anti-union advertising as part of an “education” campaign, Wyse said.

“We are always making sure that our messages are out there, particularly if there is a perspective on wages or the pros and — in our view — more cons of what having a union here might mean,” she said. “But we also put up a lot of ads that are just celebrating the successes the teammates are having. A majority of the stuff we put out there is about celebrating Boeing in the community”

Instead of focusing on keeping the union out, Wyse said she is “really focused on building a healthy, powerful relationship with the workforce.

“Getting close to all of our employees and letting them help drive the success of the company,” she said. “I’m very passionate about that.”

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_