By Max Ehrenfreund/ The Washington Post
NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — Thousands of workers at a Boeing plant in South Carolina voted against unionizing on Wednesday, perhaps the most important trial of unions’ influence since President Donald Trump’s win last year.
After years of bitter campaigning, workers at the factory said they expected the vote would be a close one, but few thought the union, the International Association of Machinists, would win in a state profoundly hostile to organized labor.
“We are disheartened they will have to continue to work under a system that suppresses wages, fosters inconsistency and awards only a chosen few,” the machinists’ organizer, Mike Evans, said of workers at the plant in a statement announcing the defeat.
Trump’s ascendance to the White House marked a rupture in the conventional relationship between unions and politics. During the presidential campaign, he offered American workers a new prescription for the economy, fervidly opposing free trade and immigration while rejecting taxes on the wealthy and public-assistance programs that union leadership and its Democratic allies have advocated.
Trump is scheduled to speak at the plant Friday, where he will help unveil Boeing’s newest Dreamliner 787, a massive passenger jet. The factory is next to the Charleston International Airport and Joint Base Charleston.
“It is great to have this vote behind us as we come together to celebrate that event,” said Joan Robinson-Berry, the general manager of Boeing South Carolina, in a statement. She called the new plane an “incredible accomplishment” by the plant’s staff.
Boeing won 74 percent of ballots cast, according to the statement, with over 2,800 of the roughly 3,000 eligible employees voting.
A presidential visit after the union’s defeat will add insult to injury for organized labor nationwide, whose leadership endorsed Hillary Clinton in last year’s election – contrary to many rank-and-file members. Trump’s margin among union households was the best for a Republican nominee since President Reagan’s reelection, exit polls showed.
With Trump’s victory came the far-reaching authority to undermine unions.
Trump can now fill two vacant seats on the five-member National Labor Relations Board, giving the powerful body a Republican majority. The board administered Wednesday’s vote at Boeing.
Conservative observers also believe that Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch, would be the fifth justice in favor of making it vastly more difficult for unions to collect dues from workers.
Slater and other observers predicted that unionization of workers for one of South Carolina’s most recognizable manufacturers would have encouraged organizing at other facilities in the right-to-work state, which generally allows workers not to pay dues to or join a union even if they work under a contract that the union negotiated. While rates of membership in unions are depressed throughout the South, just 1.6 percent of workers in South Carolina belong to a union, the least of any state.
What is more, that figure is in decline, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Just last year, unions lost about 20 percent of their members in the state, or roughly 9,000 workers.
“If they get a foothold in a plant that size, that may help in efforts to expand beyond that location,” South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance president Lewis Gossett said before the vote. “I don’t know a single business person that wants a union to be successful there.”
The alliance, an industry coalition in Columbia, ran television spots opposing the union on local stations in the weeks before the vote, including during the Super Bowl. Residents say TV, radio and billboard advertising has been ubiquitous — all of it directed at the roughly 3,000 workers who were eligible to vote Wednesday.
Labor’s weakness in South Carolina is partly due to intense opposition from local politicians. Former governor Nikki Haley, now Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, said she opposed firms with unionized labor opening facilities in her state, even though new factories would presumably mean more work for her constituents.
“We discourage any companies that have unions from wanting to come to South Carolina because we don’t want to taint the water,” she said in 2014, joking that her high heels were for kicking out organizers.
“It’s not for a fashion statement,” she said.
In a news conference Monday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., argued that limited unionization had helped the state succeed economically.
“I will leave it up to the people who are working at Boeing to decide what’s best for them,” he said. “Let me tell you what’s best for South Carolina – it’s that Boeing stays here and grows. If you destroy the business model that led Boeing to come to South Carolina, we all lose.”
Even as union membership has declined, South Carolina has enjoyed a resurgence in the manufacturing sector after years of closures and layoffs. The traditional industries of the South, textiles and furniture, were especially vulnerable to competition from overseas.
Manufacturing employment in South Carolina fell from 336,000 workers in 2000 to 207,000 in 2010. That figure has since recovered to 240,000.
Many economists say that limited unionization has helped the recovery along.
“This is an advantage for South Carolina,” said Adam Ozimek, an economist with the private research firm Moody’s Analytics in Westchester, Pennsylvania, before the vote. “It would probably erode some of that advantage if they were to change direction now.”
Others argue that the cheap wages factory workers earn in South Carolina are not sustainable.
“Right now, they’re clearly getting a big wage discount for being in South Carolina, and that’s one of the reasons there’s an election,” said Larry Mishel, president of the liberal Economic Policy Institute in the District of Columbia.
According to the union, Boeing’s workers in North Charleston make 36 percent less, on average, than workers building the same plans at Boeing’s main facility in Everett, Washington. A spokeswoman for the company responded that wages are determined by local markets.
Speaking before the vote, Mishel predicted that “even if the union comes close,” the vote would be consequential. “Management will have to pay attention, because it will happen in other plants,” he said.
The prospect of a raise if the union won was enticing for workers at Boeing, but they were also concerned that a union could sow division.
Hope Wroblewski, a manufacturing technician who said she would vote against the union, worried about being called a freeloader if the union won and she refused to pay dues, or being named a scab in the event of a strike.
She said wages and benefits at the plant are already good. Boeing is paying for her to earn a degree in occupational health online from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz. After reading information from anti-union websites and law firms about incidents of embezzlement and fines for workers who crossed picket lines, Wroblewski said, she thought International Association of Machinists would look out for its own interests, not hers.
Wroblewski said she did not vote in the presidential election, but she likes how Trump talks about the economy and is looking forward to the visit. She is still waiting, though, to see if Trump’s new approach to addressing the needs of the working class will succeed.
“You can talk all day long, but let me see what you’re going to do,” she said.