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No state in the U.S. has lower union membership than South Carolina. Now there is a fight going on to change that. This week about 3,000 workers at Boeing will decide whether they want to join the International Association of Machinists. The vote also has implications for the future of organized labor nationwide at a time when union membership has dipped to its lowest levels in decades. South Carolina Public Radio's Alexandra Olgin reports.
ALEXANDRA OLGIN, BYLINE: You can't drive anywhere in Charleston without being reminded of the upcoming vote at Boeing. The company has billboards, T-shirts and ads criticizing the IAM union.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: But the IAM doesn't like it when we work together. They want us to sit across from each other and argue.
OLGIN: The union is countering the publicity campaign with its own rallies and ads.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Is there a 36 percent difference between you and your counterparts in Washington state?
OLGIN: Boeing moved some assembly of its 787 Dreamliner plane from union plants in Everett, Wash., to South Carolina in 2011. State leaders have long fought efforts to unionize, arguing it damages South Carolina's competitiveness. The National Labor Relations Board alleged the company's move was partially to retaliate against Boeing's Washington workers after they struck for higher pay and a better contract. The charge was eventually dropped.
Several workers are grabbing pizza and soda at a union meeting near the plant in North Charleston. Union organizer Mike Evans is comparing salaries at different Boeing sites, 24 of which the IAM represents.
MIKE EVANS: I know what my members are getting paid up in Everett and in St. Louis and in Huntsville, Ala. It's just - is this good enough for you guys? Or you guys want a change?
OLGIN: The company says pay varies by location. Joan Robinson-Berry leads Boeing's local operation. It is one of the biggest private employers in the Charleston area and is in line with average hourly wages here.
JOAN ROBINSON-BERRY: Most communities are paid to market. Whether you're in a union or not, you're paid to market.
OLGIN: It is cheaper for Boeing to build planes in South Carolina. Workers tried to organize in 2015, but the union canceled the vote citing confusion among workers. Boeing's Robinson-Berry says the union is bad for business.
ROBINSON-BERRY: Our story is always consistent. We think this is a facility where we don't need a union. And our direct relationship with our employees to continue to grow this wonderful campus is our vision.
OLGIN: South Carolina has enjoyed a manufacturing renaissance. Politicians don't just market the state as pro-business and nonunion. During the 2015 campaign to unionize at Boeing, the governor at the time, Nikki Haley, was featured on an anti-union radio ad.
Lee Adler with the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University says if workers at Boeing organize this year, it would be a big deal.
LEE ADLER: It would be as dramatic a private-sector union win as has occurred in the last decade and would be a very, very inspirational moment for organized labor that's having a very tough time right now.
OLGIN: Especially in the Southeast where many states have right-to-work laws which don't require workers to join labor unions or pay dues to keep a job.
While overall union membership is down, there have been some gains. In the last few years, auto workers at plants in Tennessee and Alabama have organized. For Boeing employee Chris Jones, this vote has been a long time in the making.
CHRIS JONES: If we go to a vote, and if we lose, I'm OK with that because at least we got a say on it. It's overwhelmingly obvious that we've never had a voice.
OLGIN: Jones has been working towards this week's vote for six years. For NPR News, I'm Alexandra Olgin in Charleston, S.C.
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