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Originally published September 11, 2009 at 12:15 AM | Page modified September 11, 2009 at 6:41 PM

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Boeing Charleston decertifies Machinists union

Workers at Boeing's 787 fuselage-assembly plant in Charleston, S. C., voted decisively Thursday to get rid of the Machinists union as their...

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

Workers at Boeing's 787 fuselage-assembly plant in Charleston, S.C., voted decisively Thursday to get rid of the Machinists union as their bargaining representative, a switch that could become a factor in the company's upcoming decision on where to place a second 787 final assembly line.

The vote was 199 for decertification of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) union, 68 for retaining it.

The vote means that Boeing Charleston will compete as a nonunion plant against Boeing Everett, an IAM stronghold, to be the site of the second Dreamliner assembly line.

Boeing management's decision on that site selection is expected by year end.

Sen. Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, the state Senate minority leader and a member of Gov. Chris Gregoire's Council on Aerospace, called the decertification "a serious blow to our quest to keep the second 787 production line in Washington."

"We already know that the relationship between labor and management is a top concern for Boeing," Hewitt said. "Today's vote puts Washington at a major competitive disadvantage."

To send a message to Boeing that the state is determined to be friendly to business, Hewitt called for the state Legislature to lower unemployment-insurance costs and to reject a proposed hike in workers' compensation tax.

Several aerospace analysts, however, are skeptical that Boeing would take further risk with its already troubled 787 Dreamliner production by attempting to start a new assembly line in a place that doesn't have a history of doing the work.

Scott Hamilton, an industry analyst who runs Leeham.net, said the most compelling reason for choosing to place the second line alongside the first in Everett is the "incredibly experienced work force that is, after all, solving all the problems that have come from (the 787 partners in) Japan, Italy and, yes, Charleston."

"With a high-risk program, one where the risk remains, why would you want to put a second assembly line anywhere else, even setting aside the labor issues?" Hamilton said.

In a statement, the IAM pointed out that the Charleston facility will have its hands full in expanding to deliver the 10 aft fuselages a month that will be required when full 787 production is achieved.

"Talk of where to locate a second (final assembly) line was certainly premature and did not have a place in today's vote," the union said. "We believe Washington state holds every advantage with respect to where the second 787 line should be located. It is the smart business decision."

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Nonetheless, the result increases pressure on the union locally to accommodate Boeing's call for a no-strike agreement that would secure the second 787 assembly line for Everett.

Boeing spokesman Tim Healy said the company is pleased with the decertification.

"Boeing Charleston can now move forward to focus on excellence and meeting commitments on the 787 program."

The vote ends the IAM's role in Charleston almost two years after workers there voted to accept the union when it was run by 787 supplier Vought Aircraft. Boeing bought out Vought in July, terminating the IAM's contract and opening the door to the decertification vote.

Boeing had urged its work force to reject the union, distributing materials that called attention to the weak contract the IAM accepted last November and to the union dues that would be deducted from wages if the IAM stayed.

IAM members, including officials from the national headquarters and from the Puget Sound district, campaigned for the union by going door to door to the homes of the Charleston workers.

But resentment of last November's contract, and of the way it was ratified, proved a major obstacle for the union's case.

That contract, which delivered a meager annual raise of 1.5 percent plus a possible merit bonus up to 2 percent determined by managers, was ratified in a last-minute, barely publicized "emergency meeting" with only 13 people present.

The hasty vote, taken a day before the one-year anniversary of the IAM's initial organizing at the plant, ensured the union could stay in place. In the absence of a contract by that anniversary, workers could have voted again on Machinists representation and potentially ousted the union then.

Another sore point that affected Thursday's vote was that many in the Charleston work force were laid off last fall during the two-month IAM strike in the Puget Sound region due to the lack of production in Everett.

The petition that sparked the decertification vote was filed by Dennis Murray, a quality inspector at the Charleston plant unhappy with the turn of events in November. Murray said Thursday after the vote count that he hoped it would help to bring the second 787 line to Charleston.

"Any more work we can get for South Carolina is a good thing," Murray said.

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com

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