State of the unions

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner is assembled in North Charleston, where the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers is trying to rally workers for the union.

Unions represent less than 5 percent of the workforce in South Carolina, a state with entrenched anti-union sentiment.

Setting up shop at Boeing Co. in North Charleston would be a landmark achievement for collective bargaining interests as the biggest, most high-profile win for union activity in the Palmetto State.

Organized labor representatives know it won't be easy.

"Clearly, South Carolina has made a name for itself as the anti-union destination," said Frank Larkin, spokesman for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

Not mincing words, Repub-lican Gov. Nikki Haley has made herself a leader of anti-union sentiment in South Carolina, saying they are unwelcome, unneeded "job killers."

"We are doing just fine in South Carolina without the meddling of unions," Haley spokesman Doug Mayer said.

Also working against the union push at Boeing is that this is a right-to-work state, meaning an employee doesn't have to be a member of a union to work at a site where a union is present. They still can reap the benefits of wage negotiations and grievance hearings without paying union dues.

The Machinists, after setting up an office in March on Dorchester Road, are trying to rally local Boeing workers to join the union, saying better pay and benefits will follow. The union needs at least 30 percent of the laborers to sign cards before the National Labor Relations Board can call for an election.

Larkin won't say how close the union is to a vote, but he is encouraged by workers' interest. "Given the rate of cards collected, it draws closer every week," he said.

The union is rallying workers around the issue of long work hours as Boeing increases the clip of building 787s and lets temporary contract workers go.

"The issue of forced overtime is driving a lot of the new interest," Larkin said. "And additional production without additional people being hired is also a concern."

Boeing says a union is not in the best interest of its workers, the company or the state.

"If the IAM is promising less overtime to Boeing South Carolina workers, they are once again making promises they can't keep in an effort to fool our workers into signing union cards," said Boeing spokeswoman Candy Eslinger. "We've seen this tactic before. It's disappointing but not surprising. The fact is, 787 employees in Everett, (Wash.), those already represented by the IAM, are working at similar overtime hours as we are here in South Carolina."

The 787 is also assembled in Everett.

She said it's not uncommon on new programs, such as the 787, to see surges in overtime as new models are introduced and engineering changes are incorporated into the manufacturing process.

"The union will make many promises to encourage card signing - including promising they can reduce the amount of overtime and weekends teammates may work, but they don't have any obligation or ability to fulfill those promises," Eslinger said. "The union can't guarantee that anything will be better."

Boeing pointed out that the union is a business, and getting more dues-paying members helps its bottom line.

The local Boeing plant has more than 7,500 workers, but some are contract laborers and those in supervisory positions aren't union-eligible. Boeing doesn't break down its workforce, but Larkin estimates about 3,000 laborers make up the pool targeted for union membership. If his estimate is correct, that means the Machinists will need cards expressing union interest from at least 900 employees.

"We will not file (for an election) without being well beyond the minimum," Larkin said.

The Machinists union once was organized at the local Boeing site through 787 subcontractors Vought Aircraft Industries and Global Aeronautica. Boeing bought Vought in July 2009, and the union voted to disband two months later. In October 2009, Boeing announced it would build its second 787 line in North Charleston, bypassing the union-heavy Pacific Northwest that has served for generations as the hub of the aerospace giant's airplane-making operations. The union has been trying to regain its footing locally ever since.

"I think a lot of people would like to sit down and negotiate and understand what their rights are and what the company's rights are," said Erin McKee of Mount Pleasant, president of the Swansea-based S.C. chapter of the AFL-CIO.

"If you don't want to work constant overtime, you don't have to," she said. "People would like to have retirement so they can take care of themselves. ... They would like their wages to be good so they can send their kids to college."

South Carolina's union membership rate is between 3.7 percent and 4.2 percent of the state's workforce, McKee said. About 60,000 workers in the Palmetto State pay membership dues.

But union interest is on the uptick, according to McKee.

Steelworkers recently organized two nursing homes in Georgetown and Pawleys Island, and as the economy improves and construction picks up, she's seen more interest from the building trades.

Locally, longshoremen and other dockworkers are unionized, as are some employees at the KapStone paper mill, S.C. Electric & Gas and the Solvay chemical plant. Also, others with stage and theater setup operations, postal workers, veterans offices and airlines are part of organized labor.

As for Boeing, McKee wouldn't speculate on whether the union push will be successful. "I really hope there ... is the freedom to choose without interference," she said. "We would like a fair election."

The IAM's Larkin echoed her sentiments. "They (companies) have to observe the law," he said. "They can't make promises or threats."

Recently, a few Boeing workers started wearing red shirts that proclaim, "I Want The IAM," on casual Fridays inside the factory, part of a new push to be more visible on site. "It's their choice, so long as the attire falls under the site dress-code guidelines," Eslinger said.

Larkin said the shirts are not part of the official organizing effort.

Machinists officials aren't waiting for workers to stop by their organizing office.

They started sending out monthly newsletters to Boeing workers in June, and they are meeting workers at their homes to include their spouses, Larkin said.

"They want to know what are the risks, what do they get out of it, what are the dues," he said.

Boeing insists North Charleston's contribution of building three 787s a month to the company's production of 10 twin-aisle jets a month is taking place without a union. The other seven are assembled in Everett with certain fuselage sections produced in North Charleston.

"Boeing South Carolina teammates are making history every day that a 787 Dreamliner or aft and midbody component delivers from this site, and they're doing it without third-party representation," Eslinger said.

Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or