Boeing And Union Battle At 787 Plant In S.C.

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This week about 300 workers at a Boeing plant in South Carolina will decide whether to get rid of their union. The outcome could ultimately affect thousands of jobs in other parts of the country, especially in Washington state.


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

The holiday we're celebrating and enjoying today, was created by organized labor more than a century ago, to pay tribute to American workers. Over the past several decades, union membership has declined, markedly. Today, it's slightly more than 12 percent of the workforce, about 16 million Americans.

One union vote this week that's drawing a lot of attention is in Charleston, South Carolina, where about 300 workers at a Boeing facility will decide whether they want to get rid of their union. The outcome could ultimately affect thousands of jobs in other parts of the country, especially in Washington State. From Seattle, NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports.

WENDY KAUFMAN: Aerospace giant Boeing wants to create a second production line for its new 787 jetliner. And the South Carolina facility is near the top of the list of possible sites. Also on that list is the existing 787 factory in suburban Seattle. But that's a union shop and machinists here have regularly gone on strike.

Unidentified Man: What kind of power?

CROWD: Union power.

Unidentified Man: What kind of power?

CROWD: Union power.

KAUFMAN: Last September, for example, members of the International Association of Machinists, the IAM, went on strike for 57 days, shutting down airplane production. It was the fourth strike in the past seven rounds of contract talks. A fifth strike was narrowly averted. Boeing says because of those strikes, airlines view the company as an unreliable supplier. And, says Boeing's Doug Kight, vice president of human relations

Mr. DOUG KIGHT (Vice president, Human Relations, Boeing): That's just unacceptable. It's unacceptable to our business. It's unacceptable to our customers. And it's a matter of production stability that we must address.

KAUFMAN: One solution would be to shift production to a nonunion site. And Boeing has made it very clear it wants the Charleston workers to decertify the union and kick it out of the plant. Boeing says the decision on where to put the second assembly line is not tied to the union vote. But, says industry analyst Scott Hamilton

Mr. SCOTT HAMILTON (Aviation analyst): If they decertify, and I think people expect that they will, that will be another chit for Charleston to say we are now nonunion, bring the second line here.

KAUFMAN: The fact that South Carolina is a right-to-work state, which means less power for unions overall, is also in the state's favor. South Carolina may tout a pro management climate, but Tom Wroblewski, the Seattle-based district president of the machinists union, says Washington State can boast of a highly skilled aerospace workforce.

Mr. TOM WROBLEWSKI (District president, International Association of Machinists): Union labor has made the Boeing Company successful. Why would you want to change what's working well for you?

KAUFMAN: Wroblewski notes his members are working feverishly right now to help management fix problems on the 787. Most of the plane is being produced by outside suppliers and it's more than two years behind schedule.

Mr. WROBLEWSKI: Why are we two years late?

KAUFMAN: Tom Wroblewski.

Mr. WROBLEWSKI: It's not because of a 57 day strike. I'm going to tell you that right now. It's because of the production system.

KAUFMAN: It's widely assumed that if the second assembly line moves to South Carolina or some other right-to-work state much more Boeing work would follow, resulting in fewer jobs here.

There's been talk that Boeing wants the union here to sign a no strike agreement if it wants the Seattle-area factory to remain in the running. But both Boeing and the union say there has been no such ultimatum. If there were, says Wroblewski

Mr. WROBLEWSKI: You know, to give up our right to strike is to give up our only power, as our only tool. And we're not going to do that.

KAUFMAN: But the union leader is quick to add that the IAM and Boeing began constructive and ongoing talks just a few months after the last strike ended. Boeing's Doug Kight acknowledges that the company shares some of the blame for recent strikes. And he says both sides are committed to better labor management relations.

Mr. KITE: But at the end of the day how do you resolve differences? And can you do that in a way that does not include a work stoppage? That's the issue.

KAUFMAN: The threat of future strikes will be a factor, though not the only one, in deciding where the second production line will go. The company expects to announce its decision by the end of the year.

Wendy Kaufman, NPR News, Seattle.

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