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The Boeing Co. campus in South Carolina will see a union representation election at the end of May. The vote floats a trial balloon of sorts and could revive questions of ethical conflicts at the federal labor board.
A group of 178 technicians at the Boeing facility in North Charleston will vote May 31 on whether they want to be represented by the International Association of Machinists. The election once again tests the appetite for organized labor in the Southeast, a region where some unions have long sought a stronger foothold.
The election also raises unsettled conflict-of-interest questions at the National Labor Relations Board, which could create an opening for the Machinists. Boeing has challenged the union vote and the board has yet to resolve whether two of its Republican members will have to sit out the dispute.
Boeing recently filed a motion asking the five-member NLRB panel to overturn Regional Director John Doyle’s approval of the representation election. Doyle ruled that the workers could unionize as a unit within the larger workforce of nearly 7,000 employees at the Boeing campus. This was despite the Republican-majority NLRB’s December decision to limit “micro-unit” organizing.
“Our position on this issue has not changed: We strongly believe that this micro-unit is prohibited under federal labor law and is not in the best interests of our teammates, our site, or our community,” Boeing spokesman Victor Scott told Bloomberg Law. “Boeing will share all relevant facts and information about the realities of bargaining as a micro-unit. Our teammates, their families, and this community need to understand the potential impact this decision might have.”
NLRB Chairman John Ring (R) and Member William Emanuel (R) joined the board from law firms Morgan Lewis and Littler Mendelson, which represent Boeing in other labor-relations matters. The NLRB hasn’t ruled on filings in a separate Boeing case in which a local painters union attorney says Ring and Emanuel should recuse themselves to avoid a conflict of interest or at least an appearance of one.
“If Boeing was a major client for either firm before they took their board seats, then they should have to recuse themselves,” David Rosenfeld, a lawyer for the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, told Bloomberg Law. “Would you want your case tried by a judge whose firm represented the employer you’re going up against before he became a judge?”
If Ring and Emanuel were to recuse themselves from Boeing cases, that would leave the board’s two Democrats and remaining Republican to decide whether the technicians voting are an appropriate unit for unionizing purposes. Boeing says the “artificially gerrymandered” group should be expanded to include additional workers. A subset of 3,000 mechanics at the facility voted overwhelmingly against union representation last year.
The NLRB election marks the union’s third attempt in recent years to organize some of the workers at the North Charleston, S.C., facility, which produces the company’s 787 Dreamliner. The 787 is a commercial airliner that also is assembled at an IAM-represented plant in Everett, Wash.
IAM has identified the North Charleston campus as a critical piece of its overall effort to organize aerospace workers in the South. Many aerospace workers and suppliers have come to the region for opportunities in the manufacturing sector. IAM has also been seeking to organize workers at the Airbus SE facility in Mobile, Ala., but has yet to petition the NLRB for a representation election.
Officials at IAM declined to offer details of the campaign until May 30.
A victory in South Carolina would be large for IAM, partly because the state has the nation’s lowest private-sector ratio of union workers to all workers at 1.7 percent, according to Bloomberg Law’s labor data for 2017.
Some of South Carolina’s elected officials have long opposed labor unions. The theme was reinforced when Gov. Henry McMaster (R) vowed May 21 to resist IAM’s latest effort. “We aren’t going to let out-of-state labor unions ruin the wonderful working environment in our state,” the governor said in a tweet.
Seventy-four percent of Boeing workers voted against unionizing in an NLRB election in 2017. This followed IAM’s withdrawal of an NLRB election petition in April 2015, five days before a board-conducted election was scheduled to take place.
Successfully organizing the small group at the North Charleston facility would give a much-needed boost of optimism for some labor unions looking to the South.
IAM joins other unions including the United Auto Workers, United Steelworkers, and UNITE HERE that are actively seeking to organize workers in the Southeast, where labor organizations have had mixed results.
Losses in the Southern states are fueled by a mix of state laws and a conservative political culture, Susan J. Schurman, a professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, told Bloomberg Law.
“It’s right-to-work laws to start with and it’s a much more concentrated effort not just by employers but by the conservative Republican politicians as well,” she said. “Republicans do not like unions. They prefer that the employer has unilateral control over their business and they see unions as interference with that.”
That, Schurman said, has fueled businesses like Boeing and automakers like BMW and Mercedes-Benz to move to the Southeast “to remain non-union.” Right-to-work laws prohibit employers from requiring workers to join unions or pay union dues as a condition of employment.
Twenty-eight states in the country have right-to-work measures, including all in the Southeast region and Texas.
UAW and the Steelworkers have failed to organize workers in Georgia and Mississippi in recent years. The national average for the ratio of union workers to all workers in the private sector stands at 6.5 percent. Georgia and Mississippi have private-sector union densities of 2.5 percent and 3.5 percent, respectively, Bloomberg Law’s labor data shows.
UAW failed in a bid to organize workers at the Volkswagen Chattanooga plant in 2014, but it was eventually successful with a smaller unit of maintenance employees there the following year. That unit is still in question given the NLRB’s stance on micro-units. In 2017, Nissan workers in Canton, Miss., soundly rejected UAW after a high-profile campaign.
In October 2017, the Steelworkers union was also handed a loss at Kumho Tire, a South Korean company, in Macon, Ga., with close to 400 workers.
Labor observers have called the South a lost cause for unions, but that’s not entirely the case. Nonindustrial unions including the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and UNITE HERE have actually reported membership growth in the region and have won several campaigns there in the past four years.
RWDSU reports more than 25,000 members in the region—and that’s growing, Chelsea Connor, the spokeswoman for the union, said.
The union’s focus is centered largely on the organizing of distribution and food processing plants. Since 2016, RWDSU has won representation at Nestle and Ecolab plants in McDonough, Ga., and at Autoneum, an auto parts supplier, in Aiken, S.C.
UNITE HERE has a presence in right-to-work states and the South, where it represents more than 11,000 workers, Rachel Gumpert, the union’s spokeswoman, said. From 2014 to 2017, the union gained nearly 3,000 members who work at hotels and casinos in Biloxi, Miss., and New Orleans.
The union currently has an organizing campaign underway in Texas and four other states for 2,700 airline catering workers for United Airlines.
“Every worker deserves and benefits from a union, and regions with lower union density like the South have lower wage, benefit, and work condition standards that make it even more crucial they can unionize and raise them. The deck is stacked against workers in the South and right-to-work states, but they can win, do win, and eventually will win,” Gumpert said.
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