Pro-union vote at Boeing's South Carolina plant could eliminate jobs across the state

In spite of efforts by aircraft manufacturer Boeing to squash a union vote at the company’s North Charleston, South Carolina plant, workers there voted on May 31 to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, according to an NPR report.

Although it will only affect 180 or so flight-readiness specialists and some inspectors – a fraction of the plant’s nearly 7,000-member workforce – the May 31 vote could provide a union stronghold in this traditionally right-to-work state.

The vote came two months after the National Labor Relations Board ruled that the vote could take place among the smaller subset of workers in the flight-readiness category, after a previous union vote among the plant’s entire workforce failed in February 2017.

Writing on the website of The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, James Sherk in 2009 outlined three fails labor unions can cause: artificial wage inflation, hampered economic growth and reduction of available jobs.

Jesse Hathaway, Research Fellow, Heartland Institute  

“Over time, unions destroy jobs in the companies they organize and have the same effect on business investment as does a 33 percentage point corporate income tax increase,” Sherk wrote.

Aparna Mathur, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, warned that unionizing the plant in this traditionally right-to-work state could have far-reaching negative consequences.

“I think the lack of unionization is one reason why South Carolina is an attractive place for Boeing and other businesses to invest in,” she told the Palmetto Business Daily via an email interview. “So if by some chance, the unionization effort is successful, I think Boeing would cut down on employment or relocate some of its activities to other places which are not unionized.

“This (obviously) could have a negative impact on its workers,” she added.

The ability of labor groups to create so-called micro-unions like the one at the Boeing plant is a recent development in labor law, according to Jesse Hathaway, a research fellow at the Heartland Institute, based in Arlington Heights, Illinois.

He cites two precedents where workers sought collective bargaining rights: one occurred in 2011 and involved specialty-healthcare nurses within a hospital and a 2014 case saw Macy’s cosmetics sales reps ask for the same rights.

“Essentially, they were arguing that their job was so fundamentally different from their co-workers’ jobs, that they should be allowed to form a collective bargaining unit,” Hathaway explained to the Palmetto Business Daily.

The decision to allow micro-unions in both of those cases stood until 2017, when the NLRB did an about-face and reversed its earlier decision regarding specialty healthcare workers. That’s why he predicts Boeing's pro-union vote stands on shaky legal ground.

“If you’re an employer, how are you supposed to negotiate with a dozen, two dozen, three dozen or so workers – how is that feasible for you as a business owner to make your employees happy workers?” he asked. “Obviously, you’re going to treat them as fairly and equitably as you can. But if everyone’s possibly making competing demands, that’s going to create a massive headache and cause lots of confusion and chaos.”

Although it could appear that the union vote represents headway for unions in this traditionally Red State that has right-to-work laws, both Hathaway and Mathur downplayed any political impact it could have on the mid-term elections.

“Union membership is on the decline nationwide and workers don’t see too many benefits from joining unions, especially if unionization could lead to their jobs being threatened,” Mathur said. “Therefore, unions are always looking for ways to make themselves more relevant.”

Hathaway agreed that any organization is going to try to grow by acquiring more members, but said it was unlikely the pro-union vote at Boeing would turn the Red State to Blue.

“I think at the end of the day this isn’t going to have a huge significant effect on electoral politics for South Carolina,” he said. “I used to live (there) and I’m relatively familiar with the politics. The liberal party, the Democrats, however you want to put it, I don’t think is going to be making a comeback in the Palmetto State anytime soon.”

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