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Volkswagen Vote Won't Stop Machinists From Continuing Boeing South Carolina Effort

The vote by Volkswagen workers in Tennessee to reject the United Auto Workers union has sent shock waves throughout the world of organized labor. And that setback is an example of why the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers faces an uphill battle organizing Boeing workers in South Carolina. 

The reason why the vote in Tennessee is seen as such a step backwards for unions in the south is that the company was receptive. Volkswagen even allowed organizers into the factory to meet with workers.

But conservative politicians, including Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, urged workers to reject the UAW. Frank Larkin, spokesman for the IAM's headquarters in Maryland, says that political pressure torpedoed the union effort.

"Rarely would you see a sitting U.S. senator weigh in at the last minute with such a clear effort to impact the outcome of the vote," Larkin said. 

Organizing Effort

Larkin says the vote in Tennessee doesn’t change the IAM’s organizing effort at Boeing’s South Carolina plant. He says they’re in the early stages and haven't started actively collecting signed cards from workers.

"We continue to maintain contact with a lot of employees inside the facility who would like to be represented," he said. "They understand there’s an anti-union atmosphere in the state, but that doesn’t stay the same indefinitely."

That anti-union atmosphere in the south is only one obstacle facing the machinists union.

Before Boeing bought the North Charleston plant from Vought Aircraft, the workers were actually part of the IAM. They later voted to decertify the union. 

"That suggests there were a lot of employees seriously upset with the union, and that’s going to make it very difficult," said Dennis Nolan, an expert on labor law at the University of South Carolina School of Law.

And, Nolan says, South Carolina’s anti-union laws are one of the reasons Boeing expanded there, so the company will probably fight a unionizing effort. 

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.