SC Professor: Why Boeing Workers Should Vote ‘Yes’

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My uncle was a steelworker in northeast Ohio and a member of the United Steelworkers all his adult life. He worked hard, was paid well, had good benefits and a good pension. I worked in the same steel mill for several summers to help pay my way through college. This mill was a union shop.

That meant that after 30 days on the job (a probationary period in which I could be fired for any reason), I became a member of the union. I was now protected against arbitrary dismissal, was covered by the union’s grievance procedures, and now had a voice in determining wages, hours and conditions of work.

I learned some lessons I want to share with Boeing workers in South Carolina.
South Carolina is a “hire-at-will” and “fire-at-will” state. Non-unionized workers rightly fear arbitrary treatment and being fired without just cause. Managers and supervisors can play favorites (including relatives on the payroll) in job assignments, promotions and scheduling.

Without a union, individual Boeing workers do not have a meaningful voice in the decisions that affect their lives on the shop floor. One worker has no power to negotiate with the company on pay, benefits, work rules, or health and safety issues. Only a union can provide that.

When I worked in the steel mill, I saw a worker injured through no fault of his own. The union made sure that the company paid his medical bills, compensated him for time lost from work, and took steps to see that what caused the accident was changed so that it could not happen again.

South Carolina is also a “right-to-work” state. That is a deceptive phrase. That law does NOT give anyone a right to a job or a guarantee of employment. Instead, the law prohibits the union shop, where all workers who benefit from the union contract setting wage rates, benefits, work rules and grievance procedures also pay dues for the administration and enforcement of that contract. Prohibiting the union shop means that, although all workers are covered under a union contract, workers can choose not to pay dues to the union which has negotiated their pay and benefits–and is legally obligated to represent them in grievance procedures.

The intent of the law is to weaken unions, not protect an individual’s “right-to-work.” The economic and political elites who dominate state government passed this law. They did so to minimize or deny workers a meaningful voice in decisions at the workplace that affect their lives. It really is a “right-to-work-for-less” law because non-union workers are almost always paid less than union workers. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., declared: “In the Right to Work law, there is no right and no work and this is a fraud that we need to stop.”

What is really at stake here–beyond pay, benefits, pensions, etc.–is control of the workplace. That is why Boeing has hired outside “union busters” to try to scare workers into voting against the Machinists Union (IAM). Workers in South Carolina have the legal right to organize and bargain collectively–to have a real voice in what goes on in the workplace.

Boeing workers in Washington state are exercising that right–and you should too! Workers’ rights are civil rights! Vote “YES” on February 15th to be a part of the union and, together, you negotiate with the company for a better future. Managers have contracts to protect their interests–you should too!

George W. Hopkins, Ph.D. Professor Emeritus U.S. Labor and Urban History College of Charleston, Charleston, SC

*These are the views of the author and do not reflect any official College of Charleston position on the topic.

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