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Exclusive: Union Will Seek to Organize Airbus in Alabama

WASHINGTON, D.C. ( TheStreet) -- The International Association of Machinists, the largest U.S. aerospace union, said it will seek to organize the planned Airbus plant in Mobile, Ala.

"We have every intention to try to organize the facility," said IAM President Tom Buffenbarger, in an interview as he prepared to attend the Farnborough Air Show in England, where he will meet with Airbus officials on Wednesday. "This union has a good relationship with Airbus and I look forward to engaging with them," he said.

Airbus said last week that it will establish a Mobile plant, employing about 1,000 people and producing A320 aircraft, starting in 2016. In the aircraft maker's competition with Boeing (BA), the lack of a U.S. facility has left Airbus hampered by currency fluctuation, limited wage and work rule flexibility and diminished political influence in the U.S., particularly in bidding for defense contracts.

"I'm surprised it has taken them this long," Buffenbarger said.

Like many southern states, Alabama has sought to lure industry with the promise of low rates of unionization and "right-to-work" rules that enable workers to benefit from union influence without paying union dues. Nevertheless, Alabama is the most heavily unionized of the 11 states that made up the Confederate States of America. About 10% of Alabama workers are union members, according to 2011 numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Alabama's unionization rate is more than three times the 3.2% rate in South Carolina, where Boeing established a non-union plant to assemble 787s, and also more than three times the 2.9% rate in North Carolina, which has the nation's lowest rate of unionized employees. IAM membership in Alabama totals around 6,000. IAM Local 2003 in Daleville, Ala., represents about 5,000 members with 10 contracts at seven employers including defense contractor L-3 Communications (LLL). Several other locals represent several hundred workers at Tennessee Valley Authority and the Huntsville space center.

"Workers in Alabama are pretty much like workers in every other state," Buffenbarger said. "They work hard, they are not afraid of unions and they are not afraid of employers. They have a good streak of independence."

Buffenbarger said IAM leadership has talked in the past with Airbus executives. "They have been receptive to conversations about how to go forward," he said. "The French leadership is concerned about not making the mistakes that German automotive companies have made in the U.S., and there's a window open to engage in frank and straightforward conversations."

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