This article was first published in the Huffington Post.
NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — A group of about thirty gathered just before 5:00 AM on February 9 in the rain and chilly dark. A loose picket line stretched across an intersection where workers at the Boeing plant in North Charleston drive to and from work at the shift change. Signs carried the messages: “Proud to be Union” and “Your Community Stands with you, Union Strong!”
Workers’ passing headlights lit up signs in the dark with a more direct question. “Boeing CEO has a contract. Why not you?”
On February 15, the women and men who work at the Boeing plant in North Charleston, South Carolina will vote for or against a union and for or against their own collective interest. The struggle on the part of workers to get a contract has been a fight lasting years due to the interference of union-busting state leaders and a powerful multinational corporation determined not to see its workers unionize. Boeing has built what it hoped would remain a union-free plant in South Carolina, a state notoriously unfriendly to Unions while always willing to give massive tax breaks and subsidies to corporations like Westinghouse and General Electric.
The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW) began their efforts to organize the Boeing plant in 2014, an effort that did not withstand incredible interference from then-Governor Nikki Haley. Haley vowed that South Carolina would remain “union free” and pointedly insisted that IAMAW would never win. Haley, once a Republican critic of Trump who now serves as the U.S. representative to the U.N., didn’t have her facts straight. Charleston has one of the strongest and oldest unions in the American South: the International Longshoreman’s Association.
During 2014’s first big push, The National Labor Relations Board set a vote for April 22, 2015. That election never happened. Unconfirmed reports of death threats and strategic firings may have been behind the somewhat mysterious failure of that first effort.
Mike Evans and other leaders of IAMAW filed paperwork for the February vote in January 2017. Workers at the North Charleston plant say they have been energized by learning more about what their fellow machinists earn at Boeing’s Seattle site. IAM has ensured 37% higher wages for hourly workers in Seattle, as well as gained limited profit sharing in a city with comparable living standard to Charleston. Mechanic Eliot Slater of North Charleston Boeing spoke to Reuters News Service about his support for the a “yes” vote on the 15th, saying that both higher wages and stability in setting shifts for workers had caused IAMAW to gain his support.
Company officials refused to speak with Reuters, saying that they were too busy “ensuring our teammates understand the voting process, the realities of Union representation, and the advantages of a non-Union environment.”
They certainly have been busy. Even as the Machinists renewed their initiative, a tidal wave of corporate money began rolling toward stopping the effort. Boeing has hired outside consultants, purchased billboards, and even paid for gold-plated commercial airtime during the Superbowl on local South Carolina stations. One of these commercials portrays workers at a casino “rolling the dice” if they vote Union, urged on by stereotyped “Union bosses” (portrayed offensively as vaguely ethnic). One by one, the actors playing Boeing workers refuse to “risk” their livelihood.
Boeing has even moved quickly to try to prevent protests. A second protest on the “Day of Action” on the 9th brought together IAMAW, the International Longshoremen, and a group of community allies and faith leaders. A peaceful and indeed mostly silent two-hour picket at a major intersection where workers drive to and from work turned into a 45-minute show of solidarity. Oddly, Boeing managed to get airport security from nearby Charleston International Airport to remove supporters. Phone calls by Union leaders to local officials proved of no avail.
I was present at this event and although the officers remained polite and even helped supporters of the IAMAW deal with traffic, they also made it clear that we had to move along. At least one woman from the Longshoremen chatted with an officer about whether or not they had a contract. “You’re labor too,” she urged. Another officer chatted with one of the Machinists about their common experience serving in the Marine Corps.
But we had to load up in vans and leave. These kinds of tactics show how frightened a company rated as one of the two largest aerospace and defense contractors in the world has become of one of its plants becoming unionized.
On February 13th another major rally in support of Boeing workers brought together local allies, IAMAW, and the ILA once again. The social media and television campaign, as well as stories of on the job intimidation, make it essential that the workers at Boeing see this and know their community stands with them.
But in this hostile environment, with perhaps millions of dollars being spent to prevent these 3,000 workers from gaining a voice, the odds are long.
Behind these discouraging signs, something else has begun to happen in Charleston and can be seen throughout the Carolinas, where larger than expected crowds in these deep red states have begun to gather in rallies opposing the Trump administration. The “Fight for 15” effort has grown in strength here. The ILA continues its traditional support for workers across the spectrum of the new working class, from mechanics to fast food workers. Attend a rally on behalf of the Boeing workers and you see an ILA representative that’s also working with low wage health care workers at the Medical University of South Carolina. Go to a Fight for 15 picket and you’ll see a local pastor that also stood in solidarity with the Boeing workers.
Something is happening. Theorists on the left talk about the intersectionality of struggle. It’s happening in the streets.
Trump may make an appearance at Boeing on Friday to celebrate the construction of the new 787 “Dreamliner” aircraft. He may crow about the defeat of a union and blather his fake populism while high-fiving Boeing execs. Or, he may come to see an example of his anti-labor policies facing a major set-back, even as he faces defeat in the courts, a looming investigations of his ties to Russia and his alleged divestment, and a near catastrophic breakdown in public confidence in his administration.
We will know soon if South Carolina can stand Union Strong.