CHARLESTON, S.C. (CN) – Boeing workers in South Carolina began casting ballots Wednesday morning on whether to unionize. The vote is seen in many quarters as a referendum on the union movement nationwide.
The vote taking place in North Charleston is being held under the watchful eye of the National Labor Relations Board.
About 3,000 of Boeing’s 8,000 employees at the facility were deemed eligible to weigh in on whether they’ll join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.
But the ramifications of the workers’ decision will extend far beyond the plant where Boeing builds the 787 Dreamliner passenger jet.
For two generations, governors, legislators and economic development officials throughout the Southeast have used the fact the region is solidly right-to-work and decidedly anti-union as a lure to bring new businesses to the region.
In right-to-work states union membership cannot be mandated as a condition for employment.
“It is an economic development tool,” Gov. Nikki Haley, now President Donald Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, said in a 2012 address of how she sold companies on why they should come to the state.
“We’ll make the unions understand full well that they are not needed, not wanted and not welcome in the state of South Carolina,” Haley said.
The IAM has been trying to unionize the Boeing South Carolina plant for seven years.
If the Boeing workers vote “yes” Wednesday, many labor experts predict it will set off a wave of unionization in the Deep South and beyond.
“It would be an earthquake in the South,” said labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein, of the University of California, Santa Barbara, in an interview with Bloomberg News.
The IAM announced its intention to file for a vote at the 100,000-square-foot Boeing plant on Jan. 20, just hours before the inauguration of President Donald Trump.
“Workers at Boeing deserve to be treated fairly and they deserve to be treated with respect,” said the union’s lead organizer, Mike Evans, during an early morning news conference the day of the announcement.
“Over the past year and a half, management at Boeing has repeatedly failed to make improvements they promised workers. Instead, workplace policies remain inconsistent and raises remain subjective. Boeing workers deserve better than that.”
In a separate news conference that same morning the plant’s general manager, Joan Robinson-Berry, said “Boeing believes firmly that a union is not in the best interest of Boeing South Carolina. That’s been our consistent position and we will never change that.”
Icy relations between the aerospace giant and the union are nothing new. The IAM represents about 30,000 Boeing workers at its prime manufacturing facility in Seattle, Wash., and it was freedom from strikes and the rising wages conceded to the union that inspired Boeing to locate its new production line on land adjacent to Charleston International Airport in South Carolina.
The union brought a charge to the National Labor Relations Board alleging the decision to build a plant in South Carolina was retaliatory.
The union dropped the case after negotiating a new four-year contract for its Washington members, but with that, the battle in South Carolina was joined.
The union petitioned the National Labor Relations Board two years ago for a vote, but called off those plans after organizers claimed they were being threatened by plant employees.
Since late January, Boeing has pulled out the stops to block the union, airing more than 500 local television advertisements urging its workers to vote “no” on the union, and also turning to radio, billboards, social media and other means to get that message out.
At the same time, the South Carolina Manufacturers Institute has aired anti-union television ads about 400 times, including once in a local ad block during the Super Bowl.
Other manufacturing groups have also chimed in, declaring organized labor has no place in the Palmetto state.
Being also pressed its case directly to its workers, including by placing a huge pile of food, clothing and other products in an employee break room to depict everything they could buy for the cost of their annual union dues.
The IAM has responded with its own advertisements, but until recent days they were much less in evidence and far more muted than the Boeing or manufacturers’ ads.
While the anti-union advertisements depict union officials as crooks and con men, the union’s main advertisement features Boeing Union members from Seattle telling their South Carolina counterparts that they deserve the benefits Boeing Puget Sound employees enjoy.
The vociferous and inescapable Boeing pr effort took many in the region by surprise, as union membership across the country is at an all-time low, and South Carolina has the lowest percentage of union members out of all 50 states.
The U.S. Labor Department reported in January that the percentage of workers that belonged to unions fell to 10.7 percent in 2016 — its lowest rate ever — and down from 11.1 percent in 2015.
The 2016 estimates, compiled from a monthly sample survey of about 60,000 households, found that that 14.6 million wage and salary workers belonged to unions last year, a decrease of about 240,000 compared to 2015.
Another 1.7 million workers were covered by a union contract but did not belong to a union.
The manufacturing sector saw union membership fall from 9.4 percent in 2015 to 8.9 last year.
According to the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, South Carolina’s union membership currently stands at 1.6 percent.
But those numbers have done little to mollify those who fear the unionization of the Boeing South Carolina plant.
On Monday, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham told reporters gathered in his Mount Pleasant, South Carolina office that he would urge those at the plant to think carefully about the choice they make.
“If we destroy the business model that led Boeing to South Carolina, this plant will not be able to grow,” he said.
A short time later, about 100 Boeing workers joined union members at the Crowne Plaza Charleston Airport Hotel in North Charleston for a rally in support of the vote.
Among those on hand was Father Greg Blevins, of Knoxville, Tenn., who told the workers the vote is about “demanding what you deserve from the bosses.”
“Suppressing working people is the old way of doing business in South Carolina,” the union’s Mike Evans said. “It’s not going to be this way anymore.”
Adding an extra dollop of drama to the vote is a visit to the Boeing plant by President Donald Trump scheduled for Friday.
Trump, who has vowed to bolster the nation’s manufacturing sector and bring back jobs that major corporations have moved overseas since the 1990s, will be on hand to attend Boeing’s unveiling of its first 787-10 aircraft at the Dreamliner facility.
“This visit will give the president an opportunity to celebrate a huge milestone for thousands of workers at Boeing, America’s No. 1 exporter, and the millions of American workers involved in aerospace,” said White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer during a press briefing on Tuesday.
“This trip has been months in the making, and we’re thrilled to celebrate the roll-out of this amazing plane,” he said.
Workers are being given two opportunities to vote on the union question on Wednesday. The first round of voting occurred between 5 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. this morning. A second round of voting was set for between 1 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. to accommodate all the employees.
IAM organizers said the results should be known two to three hours after the polls close.