Union’s Smooth Landing at Boeing
By Lehr Middlebrooks Vreeland & Thompson, P.C.
June 28, 2018
The Boeing Company employs 6,749 employees in the Charleston, South Carolina region. The International Association of Machinists has attempted to organize Boeing at its North Charleston manufacturing facility, where it assembles the 787 Dreamliner, on three occasions. Last year, approximately 3,000 North Charleston Boeing employees rejected the Machinists in a vote by more than a 3-1 margin. However, on Thursday, May 31, 169 flight-line employees voted overwhelmingly – 104 to 55 – to be represented by the International Association of Machinists. This may be a significant step for the Machinists at Boeing and for manufacturing unions to organize the largely non-union auto and airline manufacturers in the Southeast.
One must be careful not to overemphasize union victories and losses, but this victory is a significant opportunity for labor. South Carolina has the nation’s lowest union membership – just 2.6% of all employees belong to a union. Boeing viewed this particular group of employees as an inappropriate micro-unit under the National Labor Relations Act. Boeing challenged the election, based upon its belief that this group of employees should not be a separate, stand-alone unit. Unlike other employees who were included in the 3,000 employee vote, this flight-line group actually must obtain a special license from the Federal Aviation Administration in order to perform their tasks and arguably have very little interchange with other employees.
This union success at Boeing is a classic “lesson learned” for employers. According to one of the employee union organizers, Chris Jones “We’ve been saying for years there are all these problems, but now we’re getting all this attention. Boeing lawyers are calling us into meetings [Plant Manager] David Carbon is coming out to the flight line and actually paying attention to us.” Furthermore, Jones said that CEO Kevin McAlister flew to North Charleston to meet with flight line employees two days before the election. According to employee Jones, McAlistersaid “It’s all my fault because I didn’t listen.” Of course, bringing in the CEO to speak to employees after the CEO has never met them before comes across as somewhat opportunistic and insincere. If Boeing is unable to overturn this election victory, the thousands of other employees in the Charleston area will pay attention to what the outcome may be in bargaining between the Machinists and Boeing. For example, if the flight line employees obtain a contract, that may be something that other employees consider as offering a potential advantage to unionization. Furthermore, in right-to-work states, employees may decide that it would be nice to be represented by the union and not have to pay dues in order to do that.