IAM: Boeing changes could be anti-union plot

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers has placed billboards in the Charleston area to encourage Boeing South Carolina workers to unionize. Boeing has been pushing back.

The International Association of Machinists union says Boeing Co. workers in North Charleston are being lulled into a false sense of security to keep them from signing a union card.

It’s a charge Boeing officials deny, but the IAM says the evidence is piling up.

Positive changes in overtime and vacation policies are just a couple of the overtures management has made to front-line workers in recent months, union leaders say, with the latest olive branch news this week that Jack Jones — vice president and general manager of Boeing South Carolina — will retire from the company in May.

Beverly Wyse, the former head of Boeing’s 737 program who will replace Jones, is reported to have a kinder, gentler management style that focuses on team building and empowerment — qualities that might make some workers question the need for union representation at the plant that makes 787 Dreamliner planes.

“Is this change you can trust to last?” the union asks on its BoeingWorkers.com website. “Were these measures merely done for your well-being and benefit, and if so, what assurances do you have that these changes are not just short-term distractions?”

Boeing spokeswoman Candy Eslinger says union concerns had nothing to do with the management shift.

“The new assignment was driven by Jack’s decision to retire, and is a matter of Boeing matching experience and expertise with emerging business needs as we continue the evolution of our programs and leaders,” Eslinger said. “Jack’s done an outstanding job leading BSC in ramping up and sustaining production ... He’s developed a strong leadership team and the site is performing and producing at historically high rates.”

IAM spokesman Frank Larkin said he doesn’t want to speculate on Boeing’s personnel changes, but added the abrupt announcement this week proves how quickly the work environment can change without a collective bargaining contract.

“Past history shows that the changes they announce this week can be changed back two months from now,” Larkin said.

Conjecture over Boeing’s intentions picked up steam later this week when North Charleston’s management launched a website — WeAreBoeingSC.com — designed to present “a very clear picture of what it means to be represented by a union,” according to a memo Jones sent to employees.

Registration information for the website shows it’s been in the works for a few weeks — it was created on Dec. 9 — and appears to be a short-term project, with its expiration set after one year.

“This public website will provide a great deal of information about the attempts of the IAM to take over your representation rights,” Boeing South Carolina said in an email to employees. “We ask that you keep an open mind. Listen to both sides of the issue. Then make the decision that you believe is best for you and your family.”

The website counters the union’s arguments for representation, saying there are no guarantees that belonging to a union will lead to higher wages or better benefits.

“The union may want you to believe that you will get Seattle wages in South Carolina, but they have not guaranteed that in writing and have not promised to make up the difference if they fail,” the website states. “Unions can ask for anything but the law does not require a company to agree to union demands.”

For the IAM, the new website is a continuation of Boeing “pushing out all types of misinformation,” according to the BoeingWorkers.com website.

Larkin said the business of recruiting Boeing workers continues and the union is collecting more authorization cards that could allow a secret-ballot vote among workers on whether to accept union representation. He would not say how close the union is to getting the 30 percent of workers it needs to sign a card in order to call for an official vote.

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