Boeing Co. and labor unions are a couple of hot business topics in South Carolina.
Presidential hopeful Donald Trump has broached both while campaigning in the Palmetto State this week, while also throwing China into the mix.
The Republican candidate made the bold if improbable prediction that Boeing, one of South Carolina’s biggest manufacturers, could shift all of its plane-making operations to China in short order unless he’s elected as the nation’s chief executive. The company builds the 787 Dreamliner in North Charleston and employs more than 7,500 workers in the region.
“Everyone loves Boeing today, but talk to me about Boeing in five years — unless I’m elected president, then you’ll be OK,” Trump said during a rally in Colleton County on Wednesday.
This week, China’s Okay Airways signed a commitment to buy 12 Boeing jets for $1.3 billion. Trump cited a larger deal from September, when Boeing announced that Chinese companies will buy 300 of its jets. On the same day, the aerospace giant said it will invest in a finishing plant in China for U.S.-made 737 planes under a plan to strengthen business ties with the world’s second-largest economy.
“Boeing just got a huge order from China, but in placing that order, China insisted that Boeing build a huge assembly facility there,” Trump said during the Walterboro stop. “So what’s going to happen is, the Chinese are going to devaluate the hell out of their currency, and force Boeing to move its assembly operations there.”
Trump hit on the subject again Thursday while in North Charleston, not far from the Boeing campus.
“It will be cheaper to build in China,” he said. “Then all of a sudden your Boeing plant in this area will be gone, and we don’t want that to happen. And a politician will never be able to stop it. Because they’re all talk and no action. They don’t have a clue.”
Boeing declined to comment directly on Trump’s remarks, but it reinforced its commitment to South Carolina, its workforce and the local community. It noted that it has invested more than $2 billion in the state since 2009, suggesting it isn’t likely to walk away from that.
North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey, who endorsed Trump on Thursday, said Boeing’s China expansion points to a bigger issue for U.S. businesses that want to break into that market.
“I think in seeing that Boeing is opening up in China, I think that pressure that they are having to give in to is a danger to all industries in this country,” he said.
But Summey also doesn’t believe his city’s largest employer would pack its bags for China in five years.
“I think Boeing will be here, and I think we’ll take the stands that we have to, to make that happen,” he said.
Summey’s son, Charleston County Council Chairman Elliot Summey, who supports Marco Rubio for president, isn’t concerned when it comes to Boeing.
“I am not worried in the least bit about our Boeing facility,” he said.
The Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce said it does not comment on any presidential candidates’ comments or campaigns.
Trump also broke ranks somewhat with the state’s GOP and business establishment, which are fiercely opposed to organized labor. He told the S.C. Radio Network that he likes “right-to-work” laws enacted by South Carolina and some other states, meaning workers can’t be forced to join a union as a condition of employment.
“My position on right to work is 100 percent. What they did with you and Boeing making it so tough, we almost lost Boeing over it. It was horrible,” he told the broadcaster, referring to a 2011 legal battle between Boeing and its Machinists union over the North Charleston 787 plant.
But Trump also told the network he “can live with unions in certain locations.” He specifically mentioned the Northeast, where as a real estate developer he had to work with organized labor on projects. He also said he has strong support from rank-and-file union employees.
Frank Larkin, spokesman for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which has been working to unionize the local Boeing factory, said the right to organize “is protected equally in every state, with no exceptions or exclusions.”
Boeing declined to directly address Trump’s union comments.
Ted Pitts, president of the Columbia-based S.C. Chamber of Commerce, called unions “one of the largest threats to jobs in South Carolina, and our businesses want a president who understands that.”
Schuyler Kropf, David Wren and Paul Bowers of The Post and Courier contributed to this report.