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Boeing's flight line workers in North Charleston vote for union, giving organized labor a boost in South

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Workers on the flight line at Boeing Co.'s 787 Dreamliner campus in North Charleston said they want to be represented by the International Association of Machinists union. A secret-ballot vote took place at the aerospace giant's campus. Wade Spees/Staff/File

Anti-union ads, social media campaigns and a mea culpa from Boeing Co. executive Kevin McAllister weren't enough to sway flight-line employees at the aerospace giant's North Charleston campus Thursday, as they voted for union representation in a big win for organized labor in the South.

Of the 169 workers who cast ballots, 104 — or 61.5 percent — voted in favor of having the International Association of Machinists union represent them in collective bargaining.

"They stood up to a Goliath of a company," said Mike Evans, the IAM's lead organizer. "They were in a very nasty campaign where they attacked individuals. We stayed on course with education and opportunity and respect and dignity going forward, and here we are today with a win. We're very excited."

Boeing. which lost a last-minute request to delay the election, said it will appeal the union's ability to represent the flight-line group, which it says is too intertwined with the work other manufacturing employees do to parse out for representation.

"Boeing continues to believe that this type of micro-unit is prohibited by federal law," company spokesman Victor Scott said. "While we are deeply disappointed with the result and are appealing, we will come together as we continue to deliver on our customer commitments."

While the number is small compared to Boeing's workforce of 6,749 in the Charleston region, the vote is seen as a major victory for organized labor in South Carolina, which has the nation's smallest number — 2.6 percent — of workers who belong to a union.

"The South has been a difficult environment for organized labor so for any union to succeed in a campaign, even a small one, is a big victory," said Susan Schurman, a professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. "We'll see how this plays out, but my guess is that this is an important step in the history of organized labor in the states."

Thursday's vote gives the IAM a foothold at a Boeing site where it failed last year to garner enough support to represent all of the plant's hourly workers.

It also gives organized labor new life among the Southeast's fast-growing manufacturing base, where automakers like Nissan and Volkswagen have successfully turned back union challenges in recent years.

Chris Jones, a flight readiness technician inspector who voted in favor of the union, said workers in other parts of the Boeing campus "are very curious about what's happening with us," and a labor expert said the win on Thursday could spread.

"Other employees at the site will wait until they see what happens in negotiations before making a decision on union representation," said Michael Carrouth, a lawyer with the Fisher & Phillips firm in Columbia, which specializes in labor issues.

Boeing fought the IAM's attempts to unionize workers in filings with the National Labor Relations Board and in advertisements and social media messages on its website, Facebook and Twitter pages.

At the same time, company officials were making overtures to flight-line employees, promising to make things better.

"We've been saying for years there are all these problems, but now we're getting all this attention," Jones said. "Boeing lawyers are calling us into meetings, (plant manager) David Carbon is coming out to the flight line and actually paying attention to us."

McAllister, the chief executive of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, visited the North Charleston campus Tuesday for a series of town hall-style meetings with flight-line workers.

"He was saying, 'It's all my fault because I didn't listen,'" Jones said.

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Boeing confirmed McAllister's visit but did not provide details about his discussions with employees.

Flight-line workers contacted the IAM last fall, saying they had concerns about unwarranted and arbitrary changes to work rules, threatened layoffs and mandatory overtime on weekends.

The workers, who are required to have a special license from the Federal Aviation Administration, also said they are paid far less than the national average for their skills and — at an average of $32.70 per hour — make about 30 percent less than their counterparts on the West Coast. Boeing also cut their pay raises from twice a year to once a year after the IAM lost its bid to represent all of the plant's maintenance and production workers in 2017.

Jones, who has worked at the North Charleston site since it opened in 2011, said flight-line workers also contacted the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the United Auto Workers unions seeking representation, "but the only one that would help us is the IAM."

The IAM filed a petition to represent flight line workers on March 5, and the NLRB held a hearing on the matter eight days later when Boeing contested the filing. John Doyle, the NLRB's regional director, ruled in favor of the union on May 21.

The flight-line employees join about 35,000 other Boeing workers who are represented by the IAM at 24 locations nationwide, mostly on the West Coast.

"Our members work at Boeing plants across the country. We are glad to add the South Carolina plant to the list," said Bob Martinez, IAM president. "I hope the company will accept the results and join us in a dialogue about the future of American industry and the American worker."

This was the third time the IAM had attempted to organize Boeing workers in North Charleston. The first, in 2015, ended when the union withdrew its petition days before a scheduled election. Last year, roughly 3,000 workers eligible for representation rejected the IAM by a three-to-one margin.

Organized labor has traditionally struggled in the South, but figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show unions experienced a slight uptick in membership last year. There were gains in seven Southern states last year, including South Carolina where union membership grew by about 20,000 workers — to 52,000 total.

The United Auto Workers says about 13 percent of its membership is from the region. And Charleston-area vehicle makers Volvo Cars and Mercedes-Benz Vans — headquartered in European countries where labor unions are common — have said they would not fight organized labor attempts at their plants.

Labor unions also are optimistic that younger workers will boost membership rolls in the South and elsewhere, with the pro-union Economic Policy Institute reporting 75 percent of gains in membership last year came from workers who are under 35 years old.

Young workers appear to be drawn to unions, the EPI said in a recent report, "to address current workforce trends that are increasing work insecurity from the rise of part-time work and unpaid internships to increased numbers of contract workers."

Boeing's South Carolina plant is among the largest users of contract labor in the Charleston area. The aerospace firm decided in 2009 to open a manufacturing campus in North Charleston — its first in the South — in part to avoid the union activity that's common at its West Coast locations.

Boeing builds the 787 Dreamliner plane next to Charleston International Airport. The site is the only place that builds the 787-10, the largest and newest Dreamliner model. It also builds other Dreamliner variants along with a sister plant in Everett, Wash.

Boeing also has North Charleston sites that design and build engine parts, build cabin parts for the Dreamliner and conduct aerospace research.

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

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