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.