Promising decent wages, respect and more consistency in the workplace, officials with the International Association of Machinists rallied supporters Monday ahead of a vote this week at Boeing Co.'s 787 plant and other facilities in North Charleston.
"This is a wealthy industry," Mike Evans, the IAM's lead local organizer, told more than 100 union supporters during a meeting attended by Boeing workers, politicians and heads of organized labor.
"Your labor allows a lot of people to get rich, but that success is not reaching the shop floor in decent wages," Evans said. "I'll be blunt - you're not sharing in the same success that you're creating for Boeing."
About 3,000 production workers at Boeing South Carolina are eligible to vote Wednesday on whether they want to be represented by the IAM in contract negotiations. Boeing opposes the union, saying it creates divisiveness, inefficiencies and gets in the way of personal relationships between supervisors and employees.
Boeing also has said a union presence might hurt future operations at the North Charleston campus.
State Rep. David Mack, D-North Charleston, told the group that South Carolina has focused too much on luring new jobs and not enough on helping workers. South Carolina ranks No. 43 of the 50 states for average household income at $47,238 per year, according to the Census Bureau.
"We need to bring jobs in," Mack said. "But at the same time, we have to have an environment and a culture where people get paid a decent wage with benefits like they do in every other part of the country."
Evans said production workers at Boeing's North Charleston plants make 36 percent less than their counterparts at unionized Boeing factories on the West Coast.
Ken Riley, longtime president of the International Longshoremen's Association in Charleston, said in a video that there should be no wage disparity.
"You should be earning the same thing your co-workers are on the West Coast," said Riley, whose union has worked Charleston's waterfront for about a century. Riley said the cost of a 787 Dreamliner is the same whether it's built in North Charleston or Everett, Wash. "There should be one wage coast to coast."
Mack said higher wages are good for the economy because: "When people have money in their pocket, what do they do? The spend it."
Boeing, however, has said there is no guarantee the IAM will be able to negotiate wages better than what the company says are already competitive for this area.
"This irrelevant wage comparison to a market 3,000 miles away is a worn-out tactic that the IAM continues to use ... despite the fact that it’s not the criteria they use when negotiating contracts," Boeing spokeswoman Elizabeth Merida previously told The Post and Courier. She said the IAM's contracts in the Southeast are in line with what Boeing pays its workers in North Charleston.
Wednesday's vote is seen as the biggest test in decades for organized labor in South Carolina, a state with the lowest percentage of union members nationally. Just 1.6 percent of South Carolina workers belong to a union, according to a report by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. North Carolina has the second-lowest rate at 3 percent.
South Carolina is a right-to-work state, which means no workers can be required to join a labor union.
Statewide, union membership fell nearly 46 percent in the 10 years between 2006 and 2016 - from roughly 59,000 workers to 32,000, the biggest percentage drop nationally. That low union presence is one of the reasons Boeing chose North Charleston in 2009 as one of two final assembly sites for its 787 wide-body planes. The planes also are built at Boeing's plant in Everett, Wash.
A.J. Russo, a production coordinator at Boeing's North Charleston Dreamliner plant, said Wednesday's vote "comes down to respect, consistency and dignity."
"There's a total lack of respect, a total lack of consistency from meeting to meeting, shift to shift, manager to manager, and a lack of the dignity that we deserve," Russo said.
This is the second time in two years that the IAM has scheduled a vote at the Boeing campus. In 2015, the union canceled the vote days before it was scheduled to take place, citing political interference and misinformation from Boeing management.
Boeing employs 7,565 people at its North Charleston facilities. That is an 8.5 percent workforce decline since about a year ago. The aerospace giant is in the midst of cost cutting in its commercial airplane division, and dozens of engineers at the North Charleston facilities have been offered voluntary retirement packages.
The IAM has not said what it will do if it loses Wednesday's election. The union has an office on Dorchester Road, not far from the Boeing's 787 campus.