Vote withdrawal at Boeing could mean tougher road ahead for Machinists union

The International Association of Machinists union on Friday withdrew its petition for an April 22 vote on whether Boeing Co. workers in North Charleston want union representation.

The International Association of Machinists says it isn’t giving up on efforts to hold a union election for Boeing Co. workers in North Charleston, but a national labor law expert says the chances of a union victory are now lower than ever.

The IAM, citing a “toxic atmosphere” created by Boeing’s misinformation and outside political interference, on Friday withdrew its petition for a vote at Boeing, which had been scheduled for April 22. IAM organizers say they will continue to recruit workers and will file for a new election, possibly in six months.

Boeing denies the union’s allegations, with company spokeswoman Candy Eslinger calling them “ridiculous.”

Beverly Wyse, vice president and general manager of Boeing South Carolina, in a statement thanked workers for their “patience and professionalism” during the union organizing process.

“We now have the opportunity to make Boeing South Carolina and our local community an even better place to work and live,” Wyse said.

Michael Carrouth — a labor lawyer with Fisher & Phillips in Columbia — said the IAM’s future “will be extremely hard” now that next week’s vote has been canceled.

“Boeing’s workers, whether they supported the union or not, were looking forward to resolving this issue with a vote on April 22,” said Carrouth, who has worked against union organizing campaigns across the country. “Workers are disappointed, and they’re going to remember that they had a chance to let the majority decide but the union took it away.”

The IAM can file a new petition in six months, but first it would have to get new signatures from at least 30 percent of the 3,175 union-eligible workers — at least 953 people — expressing interest in a new election. If the IAM had lost next week’s election, the union would have had to wait one year to file a new petition.

All told, Boeing employs more than 7,500 people in the Charleston region.

Carrouth said organizing Boeing workers is a long-term business issue for the IAM, while most workers see it as a more immediate and personal decision.

“Workers have learned a valuable lesson here — it’s all about the union and not the employees,” he said. “The process can be manipulated so the union won’t have to take a loss.”

In addition to withdrawing its petition, the IAM filed unfair labor practices charges against Boeing and halted its door-to-door visits with workers after what it called “hostile and near-violent confrontations,” according to a union news release. The charges allege Boeing encouraged harassment, assaults and threats of violence against union supporters. Boeing denies the charges, with a spokesman calling them “frivolous.”

The National Labor Relations Board will investigate the allegations by reviewing affidavits and witness reports from both sides. If the NLRB believes Boeing might have violated federal law, the agency will issue a complaint and a formal hearing will be held.

The IAM could have delayed next week’s vote simply by filing the charges, which would have to be resolved — possibly months later — before a vote could be held. Instead, IAM officials also withdrew their petition, a move they say is designed to help the union regroup and re-educate Boeing workers.

Carrouth said the withdrawal, instead of delaying the vote with a complaint, indicates the IAM wants the next vote to be scheduled under new NLRB rules that call for expedited elections. Previously, it could take up to six weeks for a vote to be held once a petition is filed. Under the new rules, approved this month, a vote could be scheduled in two weeks.

Companies are held to a much higher legal standard regarding what they can say about union organizing once a petition is filed, called the “critical period.” Carrouth said that gives unions an advantage, because they are not held to the same standards.

Mike Evans, the IAM’s lead local organizer, said visits to Boeing workers’ homes helped the union determine “now is not the right time for an election.”

The IAM received a list of the names and addresses of workers eligible to vote in the election earlier this month, and organizers spent the past week in an intense effort to gauge their support.

Evans said the visits showed many workers were confused by “outright lies” Boeing had told them.

Eslinger denied the company has lied to workers, adding Boeing has “taken a very transparent approach to informing our teammates and the community about what it means to be represented by the IAM.”

“We have provided factual information backed up by data throughout this entire process,” she said. “We have not sought to spread rumors or intruded on the privacy of employees and their families at home.”

Cynthia Ramaker, a quality inspector at the North Charleston plant who led a worker campaign against the organizing effort, told The Seattle Times she saw no intimidation of anyone interested in voting for the union during the current campaign, but said she’s not surprised IAM organizers met open hostility on area doorsteps.

“Sure, there’s a lot of people that didn’t want the union,” Ramaker told the newspaper. “They probably met those people that weren’t too happy about them knocking on their door.”

Ramaker added that the union “blamed everybody and everything but themselves. Not having enough people for the vote, that’s the bottom line.”

Carrouth called the union’s claims of violence a “face-saving” measure. He said there is no doubt the IAM will file another petition to hold a union election at Boeing. An estimate by Boeing showed the union could make up to nearly $1.6 million per year in dues based on current salary levels at the North Charleston facilities.

“They will have to continue trying to organize these operations because their long-term survival depends on it,” Carrouth said. “They have no choice. They’ll die if they don’t.”

The petition for a union election was filed on March 16 after what the union termed a “significant number” of Boeing workers who signed authorization cards expressing interest in union representation. The IAM said workers at Boeing had reached out to the union regarding workplace concerns including forced overtime, rising health care costs and what they termed a lack of respect on the shop floor.

South Carolina has the nation’s second-lowest rate of union participation at 2.2 percent of the private workforce. North Carolina has the lowest rate at 1.9 percent.

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