One of the Most Important Union Fights in Years Is Happening in South Carolina Right Now
If a Boeing plant of 3,000 workers successfully unionizes, it will represent a major victory for labor in the Deep South.
As opposition to Donald Trump's presidency mounts, progressives have scrambled to find signs of hope. Will Democratic senators vote against Trump's cabinet picks or try to block Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch? Can street protests coalesce into a movement at the ballot box? In South Carolina—an area hardly on liberal America's radar—a multiracial group of blue-collar workers is poised to deliver a simple message that requires no question marks and should resonate with wage-earners nationwide: They want a union.
Last month, the International Association of Machinists (IAM) filed for an election to represent roughly 3,000 workers at Boeing South Carolina, a sprawling complex that has churned out more than 100 state-of-the-art 787 Dreamliner jets since it opened in 2011. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), an independent federal agency that regulates most private-sector labor relations, has set the voting day for February 15.
The stakes are enormous: A union victory of this scale could energize the labor movement's long-tortured efforts to make headway in the American South, a region whose low wages and lack of collective bargaining helps depress employment standards nationwide. It may offer a lesson that labor's future under Trump requires gambling on expansion—not merely "hunkering down" to defend the status quo. And it would mark a not-so-subtle rebuke to race-baiters in the White House: About a third of the plant's workforce is African American.
"If the union were successful in this campaign, presumably it would galvanize other workers in heavy-industry sectors in the South to unionize," says Daniel Cornfield, a sociology professor at Vanderbilt University who studies labor and social movements in the region. "So far, it's been a tough nut to crack for the labor movement."
Over the last few decades, a growing number of manufacturers have shifted large-scale production to the South, attracted by low pay, meager union density, and the presence of employer-friendly laws and regulators. Notably, foreign automakers have flocked to places like Mississippi, Tennessee, and Alabama. And in 2009, Boeing announced it was shifting some production of 787 Dreamliners to a brand-new facility in the Palmetto State, away from IAM-represented workers in its hometown of Everett, Washington.
That move sparked a complaint at the NLRB, but it was eventually dropped in late 2011. Boeing maintains it did not move to South Carolina in order to avoid the union.
Whatever the company says, Boeing's arrival can be seen as part of a larger national trend, according to Kerry Taylor, a labor historian at the Citadel, in Charleston. "The South has served as a kind of safety valve for a number of employers," he told me. "It allows them to contain their labor costs… This is one factor among many that's led to the stagnation of American wages."
Union membership across the country has declined drastically in the past four decades, and at the same time, wages have remained flat while inequality has risen sharply. Last year, the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, found that incomes of non-union workers had dropped as a result of the decline of organized labor. But while Trump campaigned partially on economic populism and the promise of making life better for American workers, signs suggest his administration will embrace the Republican Party's anti-union credo.
In 2016, only 10.7 percent of workers—and just 6.7 percent of private-industry employees—were in unions, according to new figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The rate is even lower in the South, and lower still in South Carolina, which has the lowest union membership in the country at 1.6 percent.
Despite some modest gains in recent years, organized labor has struggled to break through in the region. A 2013 election at Volkswagen's Chattanooga factory sparked hopes the United Autoworkers were on the verge of gaining a foothold into foreign auto plants, but the union eventually lost the vote. (It later won representation for a much smaller unit of skilled tradesmen.) In the meantime, larger UAW campaigns roll on at Nissan in Canton, Mississippi, and at Mercedes in Vance, Alabama. Like those efforts, the Machinists' moves at Boeing South Carolina are grabbing the attention of unions and employers alike.
It's only one plant—but a victory of this size and in this part of the country, to say nothing of the political climate nationwide, would be a groundbreaking achievement for labor.
Ben Speight, organizing director of Georgia-based Teamsters Local 728, says a union win would embolden other campaigns across the region. His local is trying to organize workers at XPO Logistics, a major transportation and logistics company.
"There hasn't been a campaign of scale like this since the very mucky and inconclusive effort at Volkswagen in Chattanooga in the last ten years or more," Speight said of Boeing. "And it would obviously be a bright star for us to point to—to say it's possible, it's doable, it's achievable in a political context where all the forces are set against you."
One of the largest obstacles facing union campaigns in the South is local political opposition.
The Machinists are well familiar with it: The union originally filed for an election at Boeing in March 2015, but eventually withdrew its petition just days before the vote, decrying what it called "political interference" and "misinformation" on the part of elected officials. At the time, North Charleston mayor Keith Sumney, a Republican, made unsubstantiated claims to a local newspaper about a "yes" vote making it easier for the Machinists to preserve jobs in the Pacific Northwest. Republican Nikki Haley, the governor at the time, also repeatedly urged workers to vote "no."
"To be supportive of the union, for a Boeing worker, it's countercultural," said Taylor, the historian. "You're going up against some really powerful forces in the state."
On the other hand, the Machinists may have found the perfect window. While the measures are not expected to last under Trump's appointees to the agency, new NLRB rules that speed up the timeframe for union elections remain in effect. In addition, the Senate just confirmed Haley as the nation's new ambassador to the United Nations, and the union doesn't expect her replacement as governor, Henry McMaster, to be as heavy-handed on the subject.
Boeing is currently engaging in an aggressive anti-union campaign, which is to be expected in any election of this magnitude.
"We believe our team is best served by having a direct relationship with the company and working as one team as we continue to build on the great successes that have already been achieved here," Boeing spokeswoman Elizabeth Merida said.
But organizer Mike Evans remains hopeful the drive will prevail, emphasizing the campaign's three pillars: more consistency, better wages. and respect on the job.
It's taken on a much deeper meaning too, whether the Machinists intended it to or not.
"If it is in fact a multiracial workforce and they decide to unionize, that would be a major victory for racial unity within the labor movement, and it would be counter to any kind of racially divisive rhetoric of the Trump administration," said Cornfield, the sociologist. "It would send a strong pro-civil rights signal throughout the country—that we're a nation that's trying to unify."
An earlier version of this post misidentified Daniel Cornfield as a historian.
Cole Stangler writes about labor and politics. His reporting has also appeared in the Nation, the New Republic, In These Times and International Business Times. He lives in Paris, France