Deciphering Boeing’s wages can be a numbers shell game

Boeing Co. and the International Association of Machinists union are touting wage numbers to sway North Charleston workers

Editor’s Note: The content of this story has been updated to reflect new information received from Boeing Co. and the International Association of Machinists

By David Wren

The average wage for union-eligible workers at Boeing South Carolina is about $10 less than their counterparts receive at Boeing’s other Dreamliner campus in Everett, Wash., an analysis by The Post and Courier shows, but company officials say the numbers can be deceiving.

“You have to look at the difference in the number of years of service between the two,” said Boeing spokeswoman Candy Eslinger, who adds the longest-tenured employee in North Charleston has six years of service and most workers have less. “A person with four years of experience in Everett is not going to make that” facility’s average wage.

The average tenure of Boeing’s Washington state workers is just more than 13 years, according to IAM spokeswoman Connie Kelliher.

“However, the six year mark is where people move to the maximum pay,” Kelliher said. “After that time, seniority really doesn’t do anything to pay because they are at the maximum already. Seniority comes into play for vacation, promotions, layoffs, etc.”

Beverly Wyse, vice president and general manager of Boeing South Carolina, released figures this week that show the plant’s production and maintenance workers make an average of $20.59 per hour, or $42,827 a year. A scheduled 1.9 percent pay increase this fall would boost the average wage to $20.99 per hour, or $43,659 a year. With that scheduled increase, average wages for Boeing South Carolina’s union-eligible workers will have increased 18.9 percent over the past three years, according to company figures.

That wage will be higher than the Charleston region’s average pay of $20.62 per hour, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. It’s also higher than the average of $19.33 per hour that this area’s production workers receive, according to bureau statistics.

“When you compare that, either on average or with the aerospace industry in this area, it’s an impressive package and it’s consistent with the Boeing strategy,” Wyse said. “We not only make sure that we’re paying excellent wages, but we really also focus heavily on the benefits that we offer.”

Boeing South Carolina released its average wage figures as an April 22 election date nears for 3,175 of the company’s production and maintenance workers at the Dreamliner factory and Boeing’s propulsion and interiors centers to vote on whether they want to be represented by the International Association of Machinists union.

The local wages are less than what IAM-represented workers earn at Boeing facilities in Washington state, according to Larkin and the union’s wage card. The average wage at those facilities is $30.67 per hour. A 2 percent wage increase scheduled for September will bring that pay to $31.28 per hour — or more than $65,000 per year.

IAM spokesman Frank Larkin said pay at both Boeing sites “starts out relatively close” but that workers with more years of service in Everett make “considerably more.” He added, however, that workers in North Charleston currently have no guarantee that their wages will increase or even stay the same.

“The terms and conditions provided by the company in the midst of an ongoing union campaign may only last as long as the organizing campaign,” Larkin said. “The only way to ensure what wages will be is with a contract.”

Boeing officials say higher wages on the West Coast can be eaten up by a higher cost of living. The price of housing, groceries, services and utilities in Everett are about 10 percent to 15 percent more than in North Charleston.

Union officials downplay the difference.

“A 10 percent to 15 percent difference in living costs doesn’t come close to explaining the fact that our average wage in August 2014 was 49 percent greater than the current average wage in North Charleston,” Kelliher said.

Eslinger said the wage increases that have occurred at Boeing’s Washington state plants aren’t typical of the pay raises at other company locations where the IAM represents workers. In Huntsville, Ala., for example, new hires have received average annual raises of 3 percent over the past three years. Unionized Boeing workers in St. Louis have received 1 percent annual wage increases over the past three years. The average at Boeing South Carolina has been 6 percent.

Wyse said she believes the wages at Boeing’s North Charleston campus are at the right place — competitive but not too high.

“Ensuring that we have competitive wages is critical,” she said. “Nobody should want to be working in an area where your wages are being paid well above the market or are non-competitive. Everybody’s favorite example of that is Detroit. And so I think it’s relevant to look in the local area. For building airplanes, we have to be able to attract the best and we have to demonstrate that we’re going to invest in their growth.’

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