A Tale of Two Boeing Factories - Pacific Standard
Boeing workers in Washington State have been unionized for decades; their counterparts in South Carolina recently voted out the union in a landslide. Pacific Standard compares conditions in both workplaces, a year after South Carolina's historic vote.

Welcome to State of the Unions Week, where we look at the past, present, and future of organized labor in America.

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Casey, an airplane mechanic with the Boeing Company, used to be vehemently anti-union. When he first started working at the airplane manufacturer's North Charleston, South Carolina, factory, in 2010, a union had just filed suit against the company. The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which represented Boeing factory-floor employees in Washington and Oregon, charged that the company's decision to produce 787 jets in non-unionized South Carolina was retaliation for past strikes. Such action would be illegal. Meanwhile, Casey was on the hunt for work that related to planes, which he's always been fascinated by. "Me being an Air Force veteran looking for a job, that kind of ticked me off the union was trying to prevent me from getting a job," says Casey, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear that his opinions would affect his workplace relationships.

The IAM eventually dropped its case. And Casey completely changed his mind. "Over the past eight years, I've seen promises. I've seen what management has done," he says. "I still have the anti-union shirt in my closet, but what's funny is, right next to it, I have my IAM shirt."

Now in its 130th year, the IAM represents about 600,000 active and retired workers in North America. Almost exactly one year ago, the IAM branch that once challenged Casey and his co-workers' very existence ran a campaign to try to get them to join it instead. It was a fight of heavyweights, pitting a strong lodge that had halted production at Boeing's Washington State plants several times over the past two decades against a $108 billion company that's one of just four major passenger jet manufacturers in the world. Of course, there's no law that says a company must resist unionization efforts, but Boeing certainly did, posting daily videos arguing that employees should vote no, including one featuring the Seattle skyline "looking pretty much like Mordor," the Seattle Times reported. The battleground was set in what's widely considered the most anti-union state in America. Just 2.6 percent of South Carolinian workers belong to unions, the lowest rate of any state. Former state secretary of labor—and current gubernatorial candidate—Catherine Templeton touts her "union-busting" résumé and lamented that "South Carolina got trucked" when drivers at the Port of Charleston voted to join the Teamsters Union last December. Former governor Nikki Haley offered maybe the most colorful anti-union quotes among Palmetto State politicos, saying things like: "You've heard me say many times I wear heels. It's not for a fashion statement. It's because we're kicking [unions] every day, and we'll continue to kick them." Politicians argued that the state's anti-union reputation helped entice companies to build factories and create jobs there.

From the start, the IAM's South Carolina unionization effort was declared a litmus test of organized labor under the eye of the Trump administration. The results were not too promising for labor advocates: The IAM lost in a landslide, nearly three to one, with 2,828 people voting out of 3,000 eligible employees. Casey credits Boeing's hard-nosed tactics for turning people against the union. He recalls one instance where Boeing representatives left a pile of diapers and baby food in the break room, with signs saying that the mound represented the equivalent in cost to one year's worth of union dues. "Even I doubted myself for a little bit, but I still voted 'yes' for the union," he says.

Stacks of diapers and children's clothing on display at Boeing's North Charleston, South Carolina, campus.

Stacks of diapers and children's clothing on display at Boeing's North Charleston, South Carolina, campus.

Now, a little over one year after the vote, Pacific Standard checked in to see how South Carolina's remaining union-free has affected Boeing workers in both South Carolina and Washington. Did keeping the union out help retain jobs in South Carolina, as many had hoped? Or do the Washington workers, who have been unionized for decades, enjoy better work conditions?

Boeing is one of the last major American employers to still have a powerful machinists' union, and to have unionized white-collar workers as well: Boeing engineers in the Pacific Northwest have their own Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace, whose members regularly hold signs reading, "No Nerds, No Birds" during protests.

"If it's happening at Boeing, it suggests no unionized workforce in the private sector is immune," says Leon Grunberg, a retired sociology professor from the University of Puget Sound who followed hundreds of Washington Boeing workers over 10 years for his 2010 book, Turbulence: Boeing and the State of American Workers and Managers.

The South Carolina employees Pacific Standard talked with say management played nice during the unionization campaign, but things changed quickly after the vote in February of 2017. "Right after they did the vote, it was like the ax came down," says Melanie Holly Lewis Chen, an electrician at the North Charleston factory. In June of 2017, Boeing announced its first-ever South Carolina layoffs, mostly of managers and office personnel.

Ken, a mechanic who worked at North Charleston during the vote but has since transferred to the nearby Ladson campus, characterizes the management's post-vote attitude as: "'OK, we win, and for that, we're going to be more strict and be watching your every move from now on.'" (Ken also requested anonymity because of his pro-union views.)

Casey complained of similar micromanagement. "We have a manager that will physically watch us while we're working on the jet and watch us as we go to the bathroom," he says. "I'm a 40-year-old military veteran and I have a 20-something-year-old manager asking me why I use time to use the bathroom." Both Casey and Ken believe a union would ease communication between mechanics and managers, the latter of whom "do not have the skillset to manage mechanics," as Casey puts it.

Jenny VanOss, a spokeswoman for Boeing's South Carolina operations, disputes the idea that management policies have changed since February of 2017. "We continue to manage the business as we always have, while seeking the input and feedback of our teammates," she says. As for the monitoring of bathroom breaks, she says she couldn't comment on individual managers' practices.

It wasn't any one thing that turned Casey pro-union over the past eight years. It was just issues piling up: the seeming favoritism in who gets promoted, the increased workload and mandatory overtime. (VanOss was unable to provide data in time to Pacific Standard on the company's mandatory overtime hours, and whether they've increased over the past several years.) Workers get shifted between departments to fill personnel gaps, which VanOss characterizes as a way to "mitigate a large number of potential layoffs," but Casey says it leaves him feeling unqualified in his new roles. "That'd be fine if I were working, I don't know, at a Best Buy, at a Walmart," he says, "but if I'm building an aircraft that's carrying 250 people, you kind of want experienced people doing that." Among the worker complaints that Pacific Standard heard, the common theme was management trying to squeeze more out of fewer workers. That's left mechanics miserable, Casey says. "You can walk through the door and see in everyone's faces that they're unhappy." He thinks the IAM would help by ensuring promotions are based on seniority, controlling overtime, and preventing bosses from making him do jobs he wasn't trained for.

Yet in other, crucial ways, things have stayed the same for South Carolinian workers. Their pay remains far lower than that of their Washington counterparts, who have been unionized for decades, even when accounting for the difference in cost of living between the two regions. In South Carolina, the average wage appears to be about $24 an hour, says Mike Evans, an IAM representative who led the Boeing unionization charge in 2017. The average factory-floor worker in Everett, Washington, makes $33 an hour, according to the IAM. That's a difference of 38 percent, when the cost of living difference between Everett and Charleston is about 10 percent. (Boeing declined to comment on average wages.)

Both Washington and South Carolina's Boeing payrolls have been decimated in the past year. Between December 22nd, 2016, and January 1st, 2018, Boeing shed 6,052 Washington jobs—8 percent of its workforce in the state, according to numbers posted on Boeing's website. A Boeing spokesman based in Washington State declined to answer further questions about that number, although the Seattle Times has reported the company eliminated "thousands of machinist jobs" in 2017 by offering early retirement benefits. South Carolina lost 860 jobs, or 11 percent. "You can account for those between natural attrition and moving jobs and just being very strategic with our people plan, but none of those came from mandatory, involuntary layoffs from our production workforce," VanOss says. Meanwhile, Boeing saw record earnings, cash flow, and commercial deliveries in 2017. The company is apparently getting more out of fewer people—just as Casey suspected.

None of the Boeing machinists in Washington State I found were willing to speak to me. In a sign of the bad blood between the company and union, some employees I contacted, through social media, in both states, were extraordinarily suspicious. One asked if I secretly worked for Boeing. Another called me "a fucking scab" before blocking me on Facebook.

A Boeing employee works at the plant in North Charleston, South Carolina.

A Boeing employee works at the plant in North Charleston, South Carolina.

I asked Grunberg, the sociologist, what effect he thought the South Carolina vote had on Washington and Oregon. "My impression is that it didn't fundamentally change anything, but just confirmed some of the trends that existed before," he says. Since they opened, he thinks, the non-unionized South Carolina sites have weakened the IAM's bargaining power. He pointed to a hotly debated contract the IAM signed with Boeing in 2014, in which Pacific Northwest members gave up their traditional pension, as well as their right to strike until 2024, in the face of the company's courting of other states for the planned production of its 777X plane. Members wept openly when the results were announced, the Seattle Times reported.

"Boeing is in a pretty comfortable position," Grunberg says.

Perhaps those IAM members who voted for the unfavorable 2014 contract—which passed by a half a breath, 51 percent to 49 percent—might sympathize with Chen, the electrician. She's been in the field for more than 20 years, worked on military and commercial planes, and applied to work in North Charleston because they make 787s. "It was the latest airplane," she says. "That's the program you want to go on, the latest technology. It's just more interesting."

She says she voted "yes" for the IAM to come into North Charleston in 2017, but would vote "no" today. She had been in favor of the union because she wanted more money. "For the job skills that we do, it should be more pay," she says. She chafed at the big companies—BMW, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz—that had come to the state, "trying to pay people cheaper," and drove up rents in the area. But she also thought that perhaps if Boeing had to pay workers more, as a result of union demands, it might cut positions to save money instead. "I'd rather keep my job than vote for the union and then you get a lot of money and next thing you know you're laid off," she says.

Throughout our conversation, Chen would alternate between explaining why she voted "yes" for the union, and then sympathizing with the pressures she imagined the company faces. A union could "ruin the company," she worried. Even the layoffs made some sense to her. Compared to the Pacific Northwest, Boeing had only recently begun operations in South Carolina. Maybe it over-hired, at first, then later realized it had to adjust. "They just had to get it started," she says. "They didn't know how many managers they were going to need. They didn't know how many specialized technicians."

Most folks I talked to were most concerned about keeping their jobs, no matter the working conditions. Sometimes it sounded like powerlessness before bigger players. Chen, for example, noted that local politicians supported Boeing's position: "Even the mayor, he was on the news. Everybody was on the news, saying, like, it'd be a huge mistake" to unionize. "They just scared everybody, basically."

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