IAM: Give Boeing workers a ‘fair shake’

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers has used billboards and radio ads to help encourage Boeing Co. workers to join its efforts to unionize the local factory. The company has taken similar steps.

The national organizing director for the International Association of Machinists union says there’s still “a way to go” before a vote will be held at Boeing Co.’s Dreamliner plant in North Charleston, even as the company’s anti-union efforts are continuing to pick up speed.

“Right now in South Carolina we’re still in the education phase of the campaign,” Don Barker, who took over the union’s top organizing job last month, said in an interview Thursday on the IAM website. “This is a long-term campaign even though we’ve been involved down there for a couple of years now ... we’re working toward our goal.”

Barker said the union is “continually reaching out on an individual basis as well as a group basis with the employees there so we can educate them on the benefits of union membership, with the idea of getting them to an election so they can make a choice.”

The roughly 2,500 Boeing workers eligible for union membership have been hearing a lot of talk lately — from both sides.

Jack Jones, the retiring vice president and general manager of Boeing South Carolina, told The Post and Courier this week that his staff is “talking to our people every day” in direct response to union contacts.

That’s in addition to anti-union radio advertisements Boeing is running locally — including one featuring Gov. Nikki Haley — and a company-sponsored website that states it provides “a great deal of information about the attempts of the IAM to take over your representation rights.”

“The union is not in the best interest, we don’t believe, of the Boeing Co.,” Jones said. “We don’t believe anyone should get between us and our people, and that’s gone extremely well. So, with that as the foundation, we’re dealing with any issues that are coming up and we’re really proud of the team the way it is.”

Barker, in the online interview, said there is a misconception that IAM organizers first approached Boeing workers, saying it actually happened the other way around.

“Some of the employees there realized the difference in what they were making and what other Boeing facilities were paying because of contracts with the machinists union ... they were being left behind,” Barker said. “So they did contact us and we started our campaign there.”

Barker did not provide any specifics about the purported pay discrepancies. The IAM represents 21 percent of Boeing’s workers in other state, primarily Washington, according to the company’s annual report.

“Probably the biggest issue (in North Charleston) is the lack of dignity and respect on the shop floor,” he said. “The managers down there have the ability just to run roughshod over their employees, and that’s what they do. The main reason they contacted us is they wanted to have a little bit more say in what goes on in the workforce as well as be treated a little more fairly.”

Barker also addressed Haley’s anti-union advocacy. In addition to the radio ad — in which the governor said, “The IAM is back and they want to take away a piece of your success ... please don’t let them” — Haley criticized the IAM during her state-of-the-state speech in January.

“The truth is the IAM cares about one thing and one thing only — its own power,” Haley said during the speech.

Barker said that despite Haley’s comments, the union is garnering plenty of support in the Charleston region.

“We’re growing support in the community there as well, not only with the politicians but with other people in the community simply because we are in the education phase and people are starting to understand that we are more than just wanting to fight,” he said. “We’re about a partnership, working with the workers and employers together to make it better for everyone.”

Haley did not specifically address the union during comments she made at this week’s grand opening of Boeing’s new propulsion plant in North Charleston, which will design and make engine parts for the company’s 737 MAX. She did, however, allude to a key talking point among Boeing leaders — that the IAM previously tried to prevent the Dreamliner plant from opening and reportedly insulted the quality of this area’s workforce.

“Show all those people who said a few years ago that we couldn’t do this, show them not only can we do it but we can do it great,” Haley told a group of about 400 people, most of them Boeing workers. “And we do it with a smile on our face. And if you do that, more good will come. If you do that, we will continue to thank you.”

Barker said he’s confident the union ultimately will prevail and called on Boeing officials to give their employees a “fair shake.”

“We should have the right to have a choice and that choice should be free of intimidation, free from harassment,” he said. “All we’re asking is that Boeing not intimidate or harass their employes and let them choose for themselves.”

The union needs to get at least 30 percent of eligible Boeing workers to sign an authorization card calling for an official,secret ballot vote on representation. If a vote is held, the union would have to get a simple majority – that is, 50 percent plus one — to become the bargaining agent for employees.

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