By Alwyn Scott
NORTH CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - Labour union officials say they could postpone a vote seeking to organise 3,000 workers at Boeing Co's factory here in South Carolina if their campaign fails to gain enough traction against fierce opposition from the company and local politicians.
Organizers for the International Association of Machinists (IAM) are going door-to-door this week to gauge backing for the April 22 vote, and to make their case that union representation in the North Charleston plant would mean better pay and less taxing work schedules.
By withdrawing the petition for a vote, the union could under labour regulations reschedule the ballot after six months, but if it went through with the vote and lost it couldn't hold another one for at least 12 months, said IAM spokesman Frank Larkin.
The Post and Courier in Charleston reported last Friday that the union could withdraw its petition to hold a vote.
The union said it could make the decision about whether to postpone anytime before the vote.
"It wouldn't be surrender," said IAM organizer Mike Evans, who is currently based in North Charleston. "The campaign would continue."
The possibility of a postponement highlights the difficulty the union faces in getting support from the 3,000 North Charleston production and maintenance workers it is trying to organise.
The IAM enjoys strong support at Boeing's massive facilities near Seattle in Washington state, which are unionized, and has called two strikes in the last decade. But the union is finding it hard to get its message across in South Carolina, a state with the second-lowest union membership in the country.
Boeing is firing back with ads on television, radio and in newspapers warning that the IAM could cost workers high-paying jobs and benefits. In an Internet-era twist, Boeing has also placed anti-union messages on the Pandora internet music service.
Blue shirts with “No Union” printed on the back are common around the North Charleston factory, where Boeing's 787 Dreamliner is built. Pro-union workers are less open, though the IAM is supplying workers with black pro-union shirts, hats, buttons and fliers. "Workplace showings of support are difficult to quantify because some may be reluctant to show support in the workplace," said the IAM's Larkin.
Boeing’s anti-union messages have been amplified by local business leaders and politicians, including South Carolina Republican Governor Nikki Haley,
That has resonated with some workers. "With the union, we don't know if we'll have health insurance," said one Boeing assembly worker who was among a group of workers wearing the anti-union shirts at a restaurant near the plant. He spoke on condition of anonymity.
Union members are just 2.2 percent of the workforce in South Carolina, only just behind North Carolina with 1.9 percent. By contrast, Washington state is 16.8 percent unionized.
South Carolina also is a right-to-work state, meaning employees can't be forced to join a union or pay union dues even when covered by a union-negotiated contract.
BOEING HOLDS MEETINGS
The battle over organising the plant marks a potential turning point in the long power struggle between the aircraft giant’s management and its largest union.
For the IAM, which represents about 35,000 Boeing employees, a win would blunt Boeing's drive to cut union ranks, bolster the IAM's roster of 337,000 dues-paying members, and score a high-profile southern victory after the United Auto Workers lost an organising election at a Volkswagen factory in Tennessee last year.
Boeing, under Chief Executive Jim McNerney, has invested $750 million (507 million pounds) to put the Dreamliner factory in North Charleston after a costly machinists strike in Washington state in 2008. It plans to spend another $1 billion to expand engine casing and aircraft interior production on the same North Charleston campus.
Boeing now employs 8,200 people here, contributes $11 billion annually to the state’s economy, while its campus and the related cluster of aerospace businesses are still early in their development, said Bryan Derreberry, president the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce.
If the union wins, he says, "Boeing would have to step back and re-evaluate its strategy."
Last week, 125 IAM representatives from around the country kicked off the home-visit campaign here, telling workers and families about the wages and benefits members receive and the backing IAM has from other unions in South Carolina.
Boeing declined requests for interviews and factory visits, but responded to written questions from Reuters.
Workers say they are being called into company meetings where they hear about the risks of unionising. Boeing denies allegations from some workers that questions at these meetings appear scripted.
"Instead of cold calling teammates at home or knocking on their doors, we've chosen to have an open dialogue in the workplace," Boeing spokeswoman Candy Eslinger said in an email.
At the centre of the campaign are basic workplace issues: wages and hours. The IAM alleges that Boeing pays South Carolina workers less than IAM members in Washington state for the same work, and that mandatory overtime can mean hardship for workers who may have to work more than a five-day week for extended periods.
Boeing said South Carolina production and maintenance workers earn $20.59 an hour on average, and received raises totalling 16.6 percent since 2013. Another 1.9 percent increase is due in September. That's a much faster ramp up in pay than received by workers in Everett, where the wage scale ranges between $11 and $44.50 an hour.
Boeing also said it has sharply reduced mandatory weekend overtime as production rates stabilized.
"We'll keep looking for ways to improve the work and life balance," Boeing said, adding that IAM-represented workers on 787 production lines in Washington "are working similar overtime hours.”
So far, Boeing shareholders appear unconcerned. Wage costs in making a plane are relatively small compared with materials and energy, said Oliver Pursche, president at New York-based Gary Goldberg Financial Services, which owns Boeing shares.
Boeing's stock traded at $153.24 on Monday, little changed from its level when the vote was set last month.
(Reporting by Alwyn Scott; Editing By Joe White and Martin Howell)