South Carolina's right-to-work law guarantees employees don't have to join a union to keep their jobs, but Thursday's vote at Boeing Co.'s North Charleston campus will likely be felt throughout the workplace.
Flight-line workers voted 104 to 65 in favor of having the International Association of Machinists represent them in collective bargaining.
Employers typically raise wages and benefits for all workers — not just those covered by union contracts — whenever a labor union is successful in organizing part, but not all, of a business, a labor expert said.
"Whatever the union contract provides, employers will typically extend that to non-union workers in order to avoid further unionization," said Susan Schurman, a professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations.
Statistics tend to bear that out. When a union has a strong workplace presence, the average pay of non-union workers is 5 percent higher, according to a review of 35 years of data by the pro-union Economic Policy Institute.
However, the road to a union contract for Boeing's flight line workers promises to be long.
The IAM and Boeing have seven days to challenge Thursday's vote. If neither side raises any issues, the National Labor Relations Board will certify the election.
Boeing has already said it will appeal the NLRB decision that allowed the vote to take place.
"Boeing continues to believe that this type of micro-unit is prohibited by federal law," spokesman Victor Scott said, adding "we are deeply disappointed with the result and are appealing."
The company's legal fight could take months to decide. The union also could challenge the participation of two NLRB members whose law firms previously represented Boeing in labor cases. If the IAM is successful, the board would be stacked with a Democrat majority seen as being more pro-union than their Republican counterparts.
While contract negotiations could begin as soon as the election is ratified, Boeing could wait until after its appeal is decided to start talking with the IAM.
And contract negotiations typically take months as both sides hammer out details of wages, benefits, work schedules, how seniority is handled, grievance processes and any number of other issues specific to the site. Initial contracts can take twice as long to negotiate as subsequent agreements.
Michael Carrouth, a lawyer who specializes in labor issues with the Columbia firm Fisher & Phillips, said he's "seen negotiations with small subsets of employees drag on well past a year," sometimes resulting in no contract.
"It's one thing to win an organizing campaign. That's step one," Schurman said. "But all that does is give you the right to try to bargain a first contract. Then you have to get it ratified."
All the while, Schurman said, workers in other parts of Boeing's plant will be watching the process closely.
"If the IAM can follow this up with a reasonable first contract that suggests to other workers that they can do better with collective bargaining than they can otherwise, that's a big win for the union," she said.
Mike Evans, the IAM's lead organizer, said negotiations should begin as soon as possible because Boeing already stated its case during a lengthy hearing it lost in March.
"They need to face the facts and sit down and bargain," Evans said. "I don't know if Boeing is losing focus or if they're just that blind, but those workers went through the process. To ignore these guys after they voted goes against everything this country is based on — a secret ballot and majority wins. That's a slap in the face to what they call their teammates."
Evans knows there is no guarantee all of the flight-line workers — even those who voted in favor of the IAM — will actually join the union. Right-to-work laws in South Carolina and other states mandate that union membership cannot be a prerequisite for a job. And contract terms negotiated on behalf of a union's dues-paying members also apply to those union-eligible workers who choose not to join.
Still, he said he's confident the IAM's presence will be a boon to all workers in the form of "enforced protections, more fairness in the workplace and better wages and benefits."
This was the third time the IAM had attempted to organize Boeing workers in North Charleston. The first effort, in 2015, ended when the union withdrew its petition days before the scheduled election. Last year, roughly 3,000 workers eligible for representation rejected the IAM by a three-to-one margin at the ballot box.
While the number of flight-line workers is small compared to Boeing's workforce of 6,749 in the Charleston region, Thursday's vote is seen as a major victory for organized labor in South Carolina. At 2.6 percent, the Palmetto State has the nation's smallest number of workers who belong to a union.
Even a small victory can reap benefits for workers if an employer sees a threat of union activity spreading, Schurman of Rutgers said.
"The majority of workers win when the union gets a toehold," she said. "That's essentially what unions have argued for decades. We don't have to organize everybody, but if we can organize some and create the terms and conditions ... employers will try to meet or exceed those for other workers just to keep the union out."