Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner

Boeing South Carolina flew its first 787-10 Dreamliner for the first time on March 31, the last day of the quarter. The plane is built exclusively at the North Charleston campus. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

Boeing Co. is offering voluntary buyouts to some workers on the flight line at its 787 Dreamliner campus in North Charleston, but the aerospace giant says it's too early to say whether more layoffs are in the offing.

Those affected by this latest round of cost-cutting include flight readiness technicians and flight readiness inspectors. The buyout offers represent the first time workers who were eligible to vote for union representation have been asked if they'd like to voluntarily leave the company. Those workers have until Aug. 4 to decide whether to take the buyout offers.

"There is still time remaining on that (buyout) offer and once we know the response, we will work through next steps," Boeing South Carolina spokeswoman Lori Gunter said Monday. "It’s premature to assume the next step is involuntary layoffs. ... We always take every possible step before reaching that decision."

Gunter said it's possible some flight-line employees could be reassigned to other jobs or locations to avoid layoffs, adding "we have had success in these mitigation efforts in the past." She said the company will have a better sense next week of whether layoffs will be necessary.

The buyout offers follow layoffs announced in June affecting fewer than 200 managers and salaried workers at the North Charleston plant. Those layoffs were the first for Boeing's local plant, with those affected allowed to stay on the payroll through Aug. 25. 

"We're still trying to find positions for those employees as well, and some have already had their (layoff) notices cancelled," Gunter said. "We'll keep working to find positions for them right up to Aug. 25."

Boeing has trimmed about 6,000 people from its global workforce this year, including nearly 300 at its North Charleston sites, through buyouts, attrition and layoffs. In addition, an unspecified number of locally based engineers took voluntary buyouts in 2016.

According to the company's website, Boeing South Carolina had 7,320 employees and contractors as of June 29, the most recent statistics available. That is the lowest employment level since November 2013, when the aerospace giant reported 7,123 workers in North Charleston.

Gunter said there are no plans for further reductions this year, but that could change "as we continually review our business plans and our progress."

Most of the job cuts have been at Boeing's Washington state operations, where about 4,000 positions have been eliminated this year.

Boeing executives say they are focusing on improving efficiency through fewer workers, more automation, lower payments to suppliers and other measures to better compete with France-based rival Airbus. Since the cost-cutting was announced late last year, Boeing's stock price has soared by about 55 percent to record highs.

Boeing has not said how many positions it ultimately wants to eliminate, but company CEO Dennis Muilenburg said during a conference call last week that "this is a continuous process."

"I'm not going to try to give you any long-term trend or numbers prediction," Muilenburg said. "Just know that we're going to continue to drive competitiveness because we're going to invest in innovation for the future. And ultimately that investment is good for our company, it's good for our people, it's good for the growth of our business and it's going to provide value for customers."

The news of buyouts and layoffs in North Charleston comes about five months after Boeing workers overwhelmingly rejected union membership in the International Association of Machinists. IAM spokesman Jonathan Battaglia declined to comment Monday on the North Charleston job cuts, but Robert Martinez, the union's president, criticized Boeing's actions in an editorial published Sunday in The Seattle Times.

"Boeing’s pursuit of short-term profit for stockholders and executives is not only repulsive, it threatens the long-term viability of the entire North American aerospace industry," Martinez wrote. "The Machinists Union has been sounding the alarm about this for decades."

The North Charleston reductions also are occurring just a few months after President Donald Trump visited the Dreamliner assembly plant to tout his plans "to put our great people back to work."

Boeing remains one of the Charleston region's largest employers. In addition to the Dreamliner assembly campus and Propulsion South Carolina, an engine parts manufacturing facility, the company makes interior parts for the 787 at a Palmetto Commerce Park site and operates a research facility and information technology site.

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