CHARLESTON, S.C. (

TheStreet

) -- The biggest labor union at Boeing was not responsible for the problems that plague the once-vaunted 787 program but it could suffer from the fallout.

On Sept. 10, workers at the Charleston Vought plant, acquired by Boeing in July, will vote on whether to remain members of the International Association of Machinists, which represents 27,000 Boeing workers, mainly in Everett, Wash.

As Boeing moves towards creation of a second 787 line, the vote is critical.

Boeing said Thursday that the first 787

will be delivered late in 2010 and that it will likely operate a second production line -- in either Charleston or Everett -- by 2013.

For the union, winning a narrow 2007 election at Vought's relatively small production facility in South Carolina was an unanticipated victory. Losing a decertification vote at Vought, while unfortunate, would not have had any major consequences beyond the loss of a small group in the least unionized state. But the stakes changed dramatically when Boeing, unhappy with its inability to control 787 production, acquired the rear fuselage plant last month from financially challenged Vought for about $1 billion.

Now, the IAM faces a decertification vote at a Boeing property. If the union loses, then Boeing will have a site where a non-union workforce can assemble the 787, augmenting the capacity of the union line in Everett.

The vote was sought by a worker unhappy that the union, required to sign a contract within a year after recognition, hastily approved one at a 2008 emergency meeting attended by about a dozen people. When Boeing took over the plant, it initially indicated it would negotiate a new contract, but the company now backs the decertification effort.

"We're really disappointed in Boeing," said Tom Buffenbarger, international president of the IAM, in an interview. "We organized the Vought plant. Jim McNerney told me afterwards that he was glad we had organized the plant. He said 'when you get a contract, we want to send Boeing people down there to show them how to do this.' Then Vought gave us such a hard time that we signed at the last minute."

After Boeing bought the plant, Buffenbarger says, executives indicated they would quickly negotiate a new agreement. "We prepared to negotiate," he said. "But there was a narrow window (to decertify) after they bought Vought," and Boeing took advantage of it.

"As a company, they've been talking with our people, saying they want a new approach: They want to engage in new ways of bargaining," Buffenbarger says. "They say 'trust us' and 'give us your ideas.' Yet given this opportunity, they come at us the old-fashioned way."

Boeing spokeswoman Candy Eslinger says the company has no obligation to assume the Vought contract. She says Boeing initially recognized the IAM as the bargaining representative and held a preliminary meeting before news of the decertification effort surfaced. Once that happened, she says, movement toward a new contract was suspended.

Now, she says, Boeing is "holding employee meetings and providing employees with the facts and data to make an informed decision. We've told employees that Boeing's preference is to deal directly with (them) without intermediaries, but we've also told them we will respect the decision of the majority."

Dennis Murray, the quality inspector who filed the decertification bid, says the IAM has left workers out of decision-making. "I want people to have a fair voice in what happens to them," he says.

The possibility of a Charleston 787 production line brings added pressure. "Everybody is kind of wishing this would be behind us so we can get on with the business of making airplanes and living life," Murray says. But he adds, "Anything we can do to make ourselves more attractive would be helpful" as Boeing chooses between Charleston and Everett.

Mark Blondin, IAM aerospace coordinator, says, "If you see Boeing's actions, there is some union avoidance there." But he expects the IAM to win the election to "survey membership, then (to) sit down with Boeing" to secure changes membership wants.

The delays in the 787 program resulted from Boeing's effort to establish a global supply chain with heavy reliance on partners. Apart from final assembly in Everett, IAM members were largely cut out.

That is not to say that Boeing designed the system in order to avoid its union workforce. Rather, "the driving factor for outsourcing was to spread financial risk so that Boeing wouldn't have to finance to the level they would have if they had kept it all in house," says aviation consultant Scott Hamilton, who closely tracks Boeing and

Airbus

. "This was the McDonnell Douglas mentality."

Following a 1997 merger between Boeing and McDonnell Douglas, executives from the latter company played the bigger role, Hamilton says. "McDonnell Douglas used the same production plan for the MD-95 (renamed the Boeing 717). The MD-90, MD-80 and to lesser degrees the MD-11 and DC-10 all used outsourcing. Douglas also had an MD-80 production line in Shanghai."

Buffenbarger says Boeing designed a model to "outsource components to 100 countries, then bring them to a site where they can be snapped together." He adds, "We tried to tell the company, 'Don't lose control of your supply chain.' " Hamilton acknowledges "the unions were correct" in identifying flaws in the model. Yet next month, in Charleston, the IAM may pay a price for those flaws.

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

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