Think It's Impossible for Unions to Organize in the South? Think Again

Story has been updated with statement from Boeing 

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (TheStreet) -- Maybe it's a little bit too soon to be writing the epitaph for the labor movement in the South.

The International Association of Machinists this week said it won a union election in Corpus Christi in South Texas, organizing 450 military helicopter mechanics, technicians and maintenance personnel employed by L3 (LLL) at the Corpus Christi Army Depot.

The union movement's historic weakness in the South was underscored in February when 53% of workers at Volkswagen's plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., voted not to join the United Auto Workers. The UAW has appealed the result to the National Labor Relations Board, alleging intensive third-party involvement in the opposition to its effort.

The IAM, however, was formed in Atlanta and has a history of organizing in the South, particularly in Alabama. The union is not stopping in Corpus Christi, but rather is eyeing what could be a major organizing success story as it has begun preliminary work to organize the planned Airbus plant in Mobile, Ala. The IAM represents 32,000 Boeing (BA) workers and is the country's largest aerospace union.

In the L3 election, "Our organizers were able to overcome the anti-union bias that is promoted in some southern states by providing concrete examples of what IAM contracts have already secured for similar workers throughout the South," said Mark Blondin, IAM southern territory vice president, in a prepared statement.

"The IAM also has a history in the South that goes back 126 years, with well-established bargaining relationships in shipbuilding, defense and aerospace," Blondin said.

L3 nominally opposed the effort, "but it was not intense," said IAM spokesman Bob Wood. "They put out some fliers." The IAM has several contracts with L3, Wood said. The biggest contract covers about 3,500 Army fleet support workers at Fort Rucker, Ala.

New York-based L3 is an aerospace systems and national security contractor, providing communication and electronic systems and products for military and commercial use. Of its 48,000 employees, approximately 20% are covered by collective bargaining agreements with various unions.

"Historically, we have renegotiated labor agreements without significant disruptions to operating activities and we believe that relations with our employees are positive," the company said in its 10-K filed in February.

Similarly, Volkswagen did not oppose the organizing drive at its plant, and Airbus would not oppose one at its plant.

"We plan to build an operation that treats our employees well -- and to build strong direct relationships with and among Airbus people," Airbus spokesman Clay McConnell said Thursday. "We are skeptical, therefore, that they would see a union as adding value. Having said this, employees have the right to choose representation if they desire to do so."

In a recent interview, IAM President Tom Buffenbarger said he is enthusiastic about the likelihood of organizing Airbus. "We've already put in a lot of work," he said. "The IAM has a pretty good relationship with Airbus and we're pushing to win this."

The $600 million Airbus Mobile plant is expected to begin production in 2015, to deliver its first aircraft in 2016 and to employ about 1,000 people by 2018.

Buffenbarger also said the IAM will try again to organize Boeing's plant in North Charleston, S.C. 

In October 2007, workers at the plant, then a far smaller fuselage plant owned by Boeing supplier Vought Aircraft Industries, voted 67 to 60 to join the IAM. Two years later, in September 2009, after Boeing bought the plant, workers voted to decertify the union by a vote of 199-68. Now the plant employs nearly 7,000 workers who make parts for and assemble the 787 Dreamliner.

In February, the IAM opened an office in North Charleston, an early step in an organizing effort.

Boeing opposes the effort. "As we've said since 2009, we want to work directly with our employees and we're continuously working on keeping Boeing South Carolina a place where teammates have a voice and can speak for themselves without having to rely on a third party to speak for them," said Boeing spokeswoman Candy Eslinger.

"We're very proud of what our teammates have accomplished here in South Carolina by collaborating and working together, and we don't believe a union is in the best interest of our teammates, our business, our community nor our state," she said.

Nevertheless, Wood said, the successful campaign in Corpus Christi "shows you can organize in the South. Union contracts in the South are certainly better than what people are paid when they are non-union."

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

To contact this writer, click here.

Follow @tedreednc

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