South Carolina – Bitter Union Defeat at Boeing

Workers Vanguard No. 1110 21 April 2017

South Carolina

Bitter Union Defeat at Boeing

For a Class-Struggle Fight to Organize the South!

In a serious defeat for the labor movement, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) lost a representation vote, by a three-to-one margin, at Boeing's assembly plant in North Charleston, South Carolina, on February 15. Workers had been hammered by company propaganda, intimidation and threats, from the break room to the living room, morning, noon and night. But while the aerospace giant and a cabal of capitalist politicians, area manufacturers and anti-union outfits brought out the long knives, IAM leaders ducked the fight that was necessary to win this organizing effort in the open shop South. Pursuing the same entirely legalistic strategy that has led to one setback after another, the union tops–with their commitment to corporate profitability, their appeals for aid from false "friend of labor" Democrats and their dependence on the good graces of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)–squandered an opportunity for a major labor breakthrough. At the end of the day, a union's right to exist is won or lost in struggle, not at the ballot box.

The union defeat in Charleston is far-reaching. It is a blow to Boeing South Carolina workers, who will remain at the mercy of grinding speedup, ever-changing work rules, doctored performance evaluations and other management dirty tricks, while earning on average $8 an hour less than their IAM-organized counterparts in Washington State. Having lost the vote, the IAM has now pulled out of Charleston, abandoning its supporters just as the company is moving to impose layoffs.

It is a blow to unionized Boeing workers, whose demonstrated ability to shut down Seattle-area production through solid strikes once gave them great clout. In recent years, the IAM tops have pushed huge concessions and a ten-year no-strike pledge onto the workers in the face of company threats to move more work to its non-union operations. It is a blow to working people across South Carolina, the country's least unionized state, where the poverty rate increased over the last decade despite a surge in auto and other manufacturing jobs.

Indeed, the IAM's defeat at Boeing is a blow to working people across the U.S., as the Southern labor system of no unions and low pay continues to expand nationwide. A graphic example is the spread of union-busting "right to work" laws, now on the books in 28 states, including onetime Midwest union strongholds. These statutes were first passed during and after World War II in the Jim Crow South to undermine integrated industrial unions and were sanctioned at the federal level by the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. The "right to work" zealots, then and now, have combined vicious anti-unionism with virulent racism, often in cahoots with the Ku Klux Klan and other race-terrorists. On February 1, a national "right to work" bill was reintroduced in the House of Representatives by Iowa's Steve King (who has drawn the praise of former KKK grand wizard David Duke) and Joe Wilson of South Carolina.

What the bosses call "union avoidance," and workers know as union-busting, is closely intertwined with anti-black racism, which the capitalists wield to further the exploitation of black and white workers alike. This is especially so in states of the former Confederacy and the Charleston plant was no exception. Its managers, charged with making the factory "Stay Union Free," are known for heaping abuse particularly on black workers, who make up a third of the workforce.

In fact, Boeing has an extensive history of racial discrimination. This manufacturer refused to hire a single black person for over 25 years from its 1916 founding, and long afterward maintained segregated bathrooms and lunchrooms while restricting black workers to less desirable job classifications. To make any significant headway in the South and beyond, the unions must take up the fight against black oppression. Black workers, who make up the most oppressed and militant section of the working class, are the potential vanguard of any organizing drive.

A serious mobilization of labor power in response to recent racist atrocities in the Charleston area–the murder of nine black people in the Emanuel AME Church by a white-supremacist in June 2015 and the cop killing of Walter Scott two months earlier, among others–would have been a strong declaration by the unions to the besieged black population: "We've got your back." By demonstrating the union movement's willingness to wage a fight in the interests of working people and the oppressed, any such action could have helped propel both black and white Boeing workers into the ranks of the IAM.

But this perspective was not that of area union officials, least of all those of the IAM. The powerful Charleston longshore union, ILA Local 1422, while participating in community rallies over the massacre and making its union hall available to activists, didn't attempt to bring to bear its strongest weapon: a work stoppage that could have shut down the Port of Charleston. For its part, the state AFL-CIO's response to the Emanuel AME Church massacre was to encourage union members to pray. In any event, the self-defeating IAM bureaucracy sought to "win" community support through very different methods: cutting checks for charity events, which some groups returned because a union was not the right "fit."

The Boeing organizing drive didn't have to end this way. An IAM victory at the crown jewel of South Carolina manufacturing would have opened a crack in the dam of anti-union opposition and given a shot in the arm to labor organizing across the South. A union leadership worth its salt would have prepared workers for battle in a hostile territory where the racist ruling class revels in trampling on labor, black people, immigrants and the poor; the other side was certainly ready for a fight. Not the IAM bureaucrats though, or the rest of the pro-capitalist trade-union officialdom. The head of the IAM International, not to mention the AFL-CIO's Richard Trumka, couldn't even be bothered to make an appearance in Charleston.

It is hardly going to convince the undecided to sign up, and risk all, if when Boeing berates the union as a "divisive" force that will insert itself into the relationship between workers and managers, IAM organizers cry: "False!" In fact, Boeing South Carolina workers sorely need a force to battle the profit-gouging bosses–that is, a union rooted in the understanding that the interests of workers and their exploiters are counterposed. Wages, benefits and working conditions are ultimately decided by the struggle between these opposing classes.

Playing nice with the class enemy is the road to ruin. In 2015, the IAM withdrew a request for a unionization vote at the Charleston plant, declaring that, due to intimidation and threats against union organizers, it was "impossible to hold a free and fair election." But the union continued to play by the bosses' rules and maintained vain hopes in Democratic Party politicians. The IAM rushed to call the recent vote before Donald Trump could fill two vacancies on the NLRB and scrap rules adopted by appointees of Barack Obama (who was in the hip pocket of Chicago-based Boeing). The union tops push the illusion that if we only elect more "labor friendly" Democrats, the capitalist state's labor laws can be used to benefit workers. Truth is, that rulebook is stacked against the unions and is designed to shackle labor's social power–its ability to shut down production.

The unleashing of that power in the tumultuous class battles of the 1930s is precisely what built the industrial unions in this country. The turning point was 1934, when three major citywide strikes were guided to victory by leaderships, all avowed socialists, intent on fighting it out class against class and who understood the importance of combating the racial and other divisions that are deadly to proletarian unity (see our pamphlet Then and Now). In those and subsequent struggles that forged the CIO industrial unions, workers won by standing up against the might of the capitalists and their security guards, police and National Guard. The CIO organizing drives shattered the color bar in basic industry, drawing large numbers of black workers into the unions, although they were largely confined to the hardest and dirtiest jobs and were the last hired and first fired.

At the same time, the CIO leaders undermined working-class militancy by preaching faith in the capitalist Democrats and Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Over the ensuing decades, the class-collaborationist policies of the union bureaucracy increasingly spelled disaster for organized labor. The recent defeat in South Carolina was prepared by a series of betrayals by the IAM tops. Boeing bought the Charleston plant from Vought Aircraft in 2009. The IAM had represented Vought's workforce, but the day the purchase was completed, a petition to decertify the union was filed. A rotten contract voted the previous year at a meeting attended by only 13 members had turned many workers off to the IAM. Boeing's promises to send the plant assembly line work for the 787 "Dreamliner" and a half-hearted IAM effort to retain its foothold gave Boeing a non-union operation in the Deep South.

After the company set up 787 work in South Carolina, the IAM bureaucrats played right into the bosses' "divide and rule" by campaigning to "protect Seattle jobs" while insulting their class brothers and sisters in South Carolina. The head of IAM District 751 in Seattle declared: "If they continually offload and go into areas of nonskilled workers, they're just not going to have that quality product." The company held up such despicable statements, as well as an IAM-filed NLRB lawsuit to return the 787 work to Washington State, to convince South Carolina workers that the union didn't give a damn about them.

A union leadership that aims to win battles for labor would have committed to organizing the workforce wherever Boeing shifted production and to ensuring that its workers receive top wages and benefits. Instead, the IAM bureaucracy has offered up its services to the company as labor contractors. This participation in the capitalist game of dog-eat-dog competition for jobs, including against workers the union is putatively trying to organize, is the antithesis of the very purpose of the unions: to unite workers in struggle against their common exploitation.

The IAM officialdom's toxic policy of pitting worker against worker is even more virulent in the case of workers overseas. Peddling "America First" protectionism, the union tops wrap themselves in the Stars and Stripes and tie the interests of the working class here to maintaining the competitive edge of U.S. imperialism. Thus, when Trump toured the Charleston plant two days after the union representation vote, the IAM International issued a statement not denouncing the union haters' victory celebration but advising the Commander-in-Chief of U.S. imperialism to "urge Boeing to bring jobs home."

Such "Made in the USA" chauvinist bleating is an obstacle to much-needed international labor solidarity and fuels racism against black and immigrant workers. Bemoaning "cheap labor" abroad also serves to mask the treachery of the labor bureaucracy, which in the name of sacrifice for American corporations has fueled a race to the bottom, greatly expanding the pool of cheap labor at home. In contrast, the importance of unity in struggle was shown by the union organizing victory at Smithfield meatpacking in Tar Heel, North Carolina, in 2008. During that 15-year battle, the heavily black and immigrant workforce mobilized in action to beat back union-busting attacks, including attempts by la migra to round up immigrant union activists.

Boeing is but one example of the "Southernization of labor." Organizing the South is long overdue. The union bureaucrats occasionally give lip service to doing so, but any such campaign is anathema to these labor lieutenants of capital. A serious and sustained organizing drive would involve a level of class and social struggle that challenges the very foundations of the American capitalist order, not least the entrenched racial oppression of black people. In the class battles to come, the unions must champion the fight for black rights as well as full citizenship rights for all immigrants.

The question of transforming the unions into battalions of class struggle and champions of the oppressed is a political one. There must be a fight to replace the trade-union bureaucracy with a leadership dedicated to the complete independence of the working class from the bosses, their government and their political representatives. Workers need their own party, one whose goal is not just to improve the present conditions of the working class but to do away with the entire system of wage slavery and racial oppression and replace it with a planned, collectivized economy under a workers government.


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