Unionization has been on the decline for decades across the United States. South Carolina is home to several large factories for international corporations but has some of the lowest rates of unionization. Following a vote at the end of May, however, 176 technicians working at Boeing will now be represented by the trade union, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM).
Unions and unionization are governed by the National Labor Relations Board, or the NLRB, which is tasked with monitoring unions and union votes, settling disputes, and investigating labor practices. Any attempt by a union organization to organize workers must first be approved by the NLRB. In 2017, IAM attempted to unionize the entire workforce at Boeing’s manufacturing facility in North Charleston. Defeated by company-wide votes, IAM approached the NLRB about allowing a vote among a smaller group of workers; specifically, the flight readiness technicians.
A group of workers must be identified as a ‘bargaining unit’ before the right to unionize is vested in the group. Under the law, a bargaining unit is defined as a group of employees with a clear and identifiable community of interests. There is no required number of employees for a bargaining unit, meaning that the only requirement for unionization is the determination that the workers have similar identifiable interests.
Union membership allows employees to negotiate contracts concerning wages and benefits. In May 2018, Boeing workers in this smaller subset of flight readiness technicians voted 104-65 in favor of union representation by IAM.
As employee roles become more and more specialized, the opportunity for unionization of smaller groups of workers becomes a more realistic option. The question is whether workers will have the interest in unionization. Employers will likely always oppose workers organizing. Boeing has already filed an appeal of the unionization vote as being illegal in an attempt to claim that the NLRB’s recognition of Boeing’s 176 flight readiness technicians as a bargaining unit was incorrect and that representing only part of its workers is illegal. Boeing may be concerned that this could result in some sort of union “creep” that could eventually result in full unionization.
Currently, only 3.9 percent of eligible workers in South Carolina belong to a union. Whether this will change remains to be seen.