Democrats fight back as Haley slams union efforts at Boeing

The state’s Democratic Party plans to push back as Gov. Nikki Haley speaks out against a union seeking a vote on organizing at North Charleston’s Boeing Dreamliner plant.

South Carolina’s Democratic Party plans to push back against Gov. Nikki Haley’s strident anti-labor rhetoric ahead of the pending vote on forming a union at the Boeing assembly plant in North Charleston.

“We’ll make sure in terms of the public perception there is equal pushback,” party Chairman Jaime Harrison said Tuesday during a conference call with reporters. “Because we know Gov. Haley is going to do everything she can to push back.”

While the Democrats don’t yet have funds or a campaign strategy, Harrison said Democrats will work “with our labor friends” to ensure the Boeing vote is fair and fully explained.

Harrison said Haley has gone out of her way to demonize unions, comparing them to thugs. He called the characterization false, one-sided and something the party plans to address in its response.

“These are men and women who get up for work every day,” he said.

Production workers at Boeing Co.’s Dreamliner assembly line are gearing up for a vote on whether they want to be represented by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, known in the industry as the IAM.

The union filed a petition Monday with the National Labor Relations Board to hold an election. The vote, possibly months off, will determine whether more than 2,400 employees at the Boeing plant will be eligible for collective bargaining.

No date has been set for the vote, which could still be challenged by Boeing.

While approval is considered a long shot, it is being closely watched nationally, largely because it is one of organized labor’s largest-ever pushes in South Carolina. It also comes as the state is becoming a stage for Republicans seeking the White House.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and current Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, both of whom are anti-union, have appearances scheduled in the state this week. Earlier this month, Walker signed a so-called right-to-work law, barring private-sector workers in Wisconsin who are covered by a collective-bargaining agreement from being required to join a union and pay dues as a condition of employment.

Harrison was joined by national Democratic Party officials and the AFL-CIO of South Carolina in a conference call with state media Tuesday. They criticized Bush and Walker as “completely at odds” with the values of state residents for opposing an increase in the minimum wage.

Democratic state lawmakers have proposed raising the minimum hourly wage from the current federal $7.25 to $10.10 per hour. The two proposals are not expected to pass.

Harrison said the union vote at Boeing shouldn’t be an opportunity to demonize the working class. Basic job protections that most Americans enjoy today “are the results of the hard work that unions have done,” he said.

Haley’s office responded by saying Democrats don’t have a track record of supporting Boeing’s workforce and expansion to South Carolina, as was evident in a challenge filed by the NLRB when the company was moving here. The governor addressed the Boeing union question during a joint appearance with Bush on Tuesday at a domestic violence shelter. Haley said the nonunion Boeing workforce in North Charleston has “proved we can build an airplane and build it well.”

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A Boeing spokeswoman said earlier the company is opposed to the union, saying it wants to keep an open culture of collaboration between workers and management.

Jockeying ahead of the vote has already begun. Both sides have been paying for billboards and radio advertisements, including one that Haley recorded for Boeing. The union and Boeing also have dueling websites, each urging employees to take their side. The IAM released a video on YouTube over the weekend depicting people being interviewed about their support for a union at Boeing.

Boeing’s North Charleston plant has about 7,500 workers. The union petition filed Monday does not cover any workers at Boeing’s propulsion facility, which held its grand opening in February and will make engine inlet components for the single-body 737-MAX airplane and design and engineer engine components for the wide-body 777-X.

South Carolina’s status as a right-to-work state means that no worker can be required to join a union to be employed at a business where workers are represented by a union. So, even if the IAM wins the vote, Boeing employees still can choose not to join. Any collective bargaining agreement, however, would cover all eligible Boeing workers.

David Wren contributed to this report. Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551

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