March 25, 2015 / 4:50 PM / 4 years ago

Vote at Boeing South Carolina plants sets up labor showdown

NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) - Boeing Co faces a union authorization vote in South Carolina next month that pits the plane maker and anti-union Governor Nikki Haley against an organized labor movement that has been thwarted from expansion in the South.

The Boeing logo is seen at their headquarters in Chicago, April 24, 2013. REUTERS/Jim Young

The U.S. National Labor Relations Board scheduled the vote for April 22 after Boeing and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) agreed on Tuesday that the potential bargaining unit would include 3,000 employees at Boeing’s South Carolina facilities.

The union’s decision to call for a vote launched a high-stakes campaign that could have an impact well beyond the aircraft maker’s plants in the state. Labor has struggled for years to organize auto plants and other major manufacturing operations in the South to reverse declining membership.

A win in South Carolina, a strongly anti-union state where only 4 percent of the workforce is organized, would also restore some leverage with Boeing the IAM lost as the company expanded non-union operations outside its traditional Seattle base.

It also could help heal a split between the IAM’s national leaders and its members in the Seattle area, who were bitterly divided by a contract vote last year.

IAM District 751, which represents 33,000 Boeing workers in Washington state and California, has sent members to help organize South Carolina, president Jon Holden said.

“Our focus is about making sure the workers of South Carolina see the benefits of union representation,” he added.

Haley’s sharp rhetoric, meanwhile, has given a boost to her standing in the Republican party. Last year she was quoted in local media as saying she discouraged “any companies that have unions from wanting to come to South Carolina because we don’t want to taint the water.”

Boeing is fighting the union’s organizing efforts in advertisements, and has set up a website, WeAreBoeingSC.com, that features criticism of the machinists’ union.

“They don’t have to have a union to have a voice,” Boeing spokeswoman Candy Eslinger said, noting the company has broad support for its view in South Carolina’s business and political communities.

Boeing is spending $1 billion to expand facilities, and said last year it will build the forthcoming 787-10 exclusively at the South Carolina plant, she added.

Boeing’s $750 million South Carolina operation, which opened in 2011, has been at the center of a series of clashes between the IAM and company management.

The NLRB alleged that Boeing built the plant in part to retaliate against the IAM for past strikes in Washington state, where the company builds most of its jetliners.

A bitter 2008 machinists’ strike curbed Boeing’s production and cost the company an estimated $2 billion. The IAM is Boeing’s largest union, representing more than 34,000 employees.

The vote will take place at five plant locations in North Charleston and nearby Ladson, where Boeing builds 787-8 and 787-9 widebody commercial airplanes and has propulsion and cabin interior production facilities. The vote is not being held under “fast track” rules that allow elections to be called quickly, the NLRB said.

Boeing shares were down 1.9 percent at $148.70 at 3:10 p.m. EDT trading on the New York Stock Exchange, amid a 1.3 percent decline in the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

Additional reporting, writing by Alwyn Scott; Editing by Alan Crosby

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