A group of about thirty gathered just before 5:00 AM on February 9 in the rain and chilly dark. A loose picket stretched across an intersection where workers at the Boeing plant in North Charleston South Carolina drive to and from work at shift change. Signs carried the message “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 determined to strip mine South Carolina for profits, a state already notoriously unfriendly to labor while always willing to give massive tax breaks and subsidies to corporations like Westinghouse and General Electric.
The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Worker (IAM) began their efforts to organize the Boeing plant in 2014, an effort that did not weather incredible political interference from then-Governor Nikki Haley. Haley vowed that South Carolina would remain Union free and even appeared in an ad on behalf of the corporation. Haley, once a Republican critic of Trump now serves at his pleasure as the U.S. representative to the U.N. where she recently seemed to engage in sabre rattling with the entire planet with her comments that the United States was “taking names.”
During this first big push, The National Labor Relations Board set a vote for April 22nd, 2015. That never happened. Unconfirmed reports of death threats and strategic firings joined with a massive campaign of political pressure and misinformation.
Mike Evans and other leaders of IAM filed paperwork for the February vote last month. Learning more about what their sister and brother machinists earn at Boeing’s Seattle site has energized the Boeing workers. IAM has ensured 36% higher wages for hourly workers in Seattle, and even won limited profit sharing in a city with a 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 informed his decision.
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 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 “Labor 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 silence community protest. A second action on the 9th brought together IAM, the International Longshoremen Association (ILA), 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 joined this event and although the officers remained polite and even helped supporters of the IAM deal with traffic, they also made it clear that we had to move along. At least one woman from the ILA chatted with security 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. Polite banter aside, we had to load up in vans and leave.
On February 13th another major rally in support of Boeing workers brought together local allies, IAM , 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.
A victory against Boeing would reverberate throughout the South and the nation during a time when the 1% are stacking the deck against working people. 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, part of an effort that stands poised to prevent the confirmation of fast food magnate and inveterate enemy of workers Andy Puzder as Secretary of Labor. 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 men and women of Boeing 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 have a chance to 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 inhumane policies receiving a major set-back, even as he faces defeat in the courts, a looming investigation of his ties to Russia and his refusal to truly divest himself of his own financial empire, and a near catastrophic breakdown in public confidence in his administration.
We will know soon if South Carolina strikes a blow against the corporate warlords who would rather pay consultants and advertising firms millions than build a partnership with their employees. We already know the workers here will continue the fight.