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Another Union Loss in the South

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The International Association of Machinists had hopes to organize Boeing’s plant in South Carolina, which exists precisely because Boeing executives wanted to bust the unions in their Seattle plants. It did not end well.

Organizers with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers failed to persuade a majority of about 3,000 union-eligible Boeing workers in the state to vote for the union amid enormous pressure from management.

Boeing said 74 percent of the more than 2,800 workers voting rejected the union.

Many analysts say that Boeing decided to put its second Dreamliner aircraft assembly line in the state to reduce the leverage of the machinists’ union, which represents Boeing’s work force in the Puget Sound region of Washington State and has used work stoppages to exact concessions from the company in the past. South Carolina is one of the least unionized states in the country.

Hoyt N. Wheeler, an emeritus professor of business at the University of South Carolina who taught labor relations and employment law, said in an interview before the vote that a victory would be “highly significant” because “one of Boeing’s motivations for coming to South Carolina was to escape the union.”

The election took on added significance because of the emphasis President Trump has placed on domestic manufacturing, and on Boeing in particular. The president has called out the company over the cost of the new Air Force One program it is developing, and he recently sought to pit Boeing against Lockheed Martin to hold down the cost of the F-35 fighter jet.

74 percent. Holy moly. That’s not even close. I’m surprised the IAM even went to a vote with that low level of support. There is some speculation that it’s because they fear Trump NLRB appointees. And they had already canceled one vote. So I guess they had to go through with it.

Organizers who work in the South hate to hear this, but the reality is that the South is basically impossible to organize on a large scale. It has always been thus. The failures of the textile strike of 1934, Operation Dixie in 1946, the UAW campaigns of the 1990s, the Volkswagen vote in 2014. Again and again, large-scale organizing has failed in the South. This has been one of the core defining issues of the American labor movement. Southern white workers resist unions. Employers started moving down there quite explicitly because of not only the lack of a union tradition, but traditions of white solidarity that would divide workforces and long traditions of paternalism. From the moment unions started to organize in the South, they were portrayed as scary outsiders, first often as Jews and communists, then as black institutions that would destroy the South.

There simply is no good answer for this. Until the American labor movement can organize the South, it can’t become a force again. But given that it has never been able to organize the South, there’s not any real hope that they will succeed. It’s a heck of a problem. And the problem is most accurately portrayed, as it has always been, that the white working class chooses racial solidarity over class solidarity over and over again.

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