After finishing a day's work at the Boeing assembly plant in North Charleston, aircraft mechanic Farrington James stops by the new machinists' union hall, a spartan storefront office in a strip mall on Dorchester Road.
He's been thinking about what he'll say to the press, jotting down notes on a sheet of paper. When he speaks, his words are measured and calm. He wants to talk about joining a union.
"I know, learning from these guys, that it's a can of worms," James says, gesturing to the two union organizers working at their desks across the room. "But at the same time, we want to get some visibility on this and inspire other workers to really understand it's OK to talk to people. I think it'll be the start of something great."
James has his work cut out for him. It is famously difficult to start a union in South Carolina. The state has the third-lowest union participation rate in the country, with just 4.7 percent of workers represented by unions. Part of the reason has to do with the Palmetto State's right-to-work laws, which prevent an employer from making an agreement with a union to only hire unionized workers. As a result, some workers in right-to-work states might reap the benefits of a union's efforts — including negotiated wages and grievance representation — without paying a nickel in union dues. This phenomenon has been called the "free rider problem." One 1995 study published in the Journal of Labor Research found that 17 percent of covered workers in right-to-work states are free riders.
And yet, despite the regulatory challenges, labor organizing efforts are underway at Boeing, the Medical University of South Carolina, and some local fast-food franchises.
Boeing's North Charleston facility, which employs about 7,500 people including contractors, has not had a union since 2009. At that time, there were two much smaller plant buildings on the site owned by Boeing subcontractors Vought Aircraft Industries and Global Aeronautica, and the few hundred workers there had voted to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) just two years prior. But on the same day in July 2009 when Boeing announced it would purchase the Vought facility, a quality inspector at the site filed a petition to decertify the union, according to the Charleston Regional Business Journal. In September 2009, workers voted 199 to 68 to leave the union. In October 2009, Boeing announced it had selected North Charleston as an assembly site for its cutting-edge 787 Dreamliner, bringing thousands of new jobs to the union-free South Carolina site and snubbing Boeing's facility in Everett, Wash., where many employees are IAM members.
James started working as an aircraft mechanic at the North Charleston site in 2009, shortly before Boeing announced its expansion. He knows the history. But recently, IAM has been trying to stage a comeback in North Charleston, and he's on board. The union opened up an office near the Boeing plant in March, and while full-time union organizers are not allowed to enter the facility, employees are free to discuss the idea of joining a union. Under the National Labor Relations Act, if 30 percent of the workers at a facility sign cards authorizing an election, they are allowed to hold a vote on whether to unionize. If a simple majority of employees then vote yes, they can join a union.
James says he has been handing out authorization cards and talking about the idea of a union with his coworkers. He says the idea is picking up steam. The workers have complaints, especially in regards to overtime on weekends, he says. "That's been going on for years. That's old news. What's new is to hear more people feeling the exact same way," James says.
Beyond the challenge of the right-to-work law, IAM might have a hard time attracting Boeing workers because the air giant has said it doesn't want a union. In a prepared statement Boeing spokesperson Candy Eslinger says that the management of the North Charleston facility wants "to work directly with our employees."
Eslinger says Boeing already has policies in place for employees who want to address complaints to management. The company has an Alternative Dispute Resolution Process that involves "mediation, peer panel reviews, formal mediation, and arbitration," Eslinger says.
"We've said before that Boeing South Carolina has been an IAM target since former Vought teammates voted to decertify the union in 2009," Eslinger adds. "It comes down to simple economics — the union is a business, and they need to collect union dues to keep their business viable."
Perhaps the biggest union critic in South Carolina is the governor. Nikki Haley has said repeatedly that she does not want unionized companies to set up shop in the state. Even her Democratic opponent in the November gubernatorial election, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, has said that he thinks South Carolina should keep its right-to-work laws.
Haley used no uncertain terms when speaking about unions in a February 2014 interview with The Greenville News. "You've heard me say many times I wear heels. It's not for a fashion statement," Haley said. "It's because we're kicking them every day, and we'll continue to kick them."
Political opposition aside, union organizers will have to sell the idea to workers first if they want to set up shop in South Carolina.
Among the perks, union members can get representation if they think they've been wrongfully terminated. If a union can negotiate contracts, employees often go from being "at-will" employees who can be fired for any legal reason (or no given reason at all) to being "just-cause" employees who must be given a reason for their termination.
Negotiated wages can also mean higher pay. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures from 2013 showed that, among full-time wage and salary workers, union members received median weekly earnings of $950, compared to $750 for non-union members. But, as union opponents will often point out, union dues can sometimes eat up increases in pay.
Unions are also sometimes portrayed as job killers. One 2011 study by the Economic Policy Institute found that the average unemployment rate in non-right-to-work states was 9.6 percent, a full percentage point higher than in right-to-work states (8.6 percent).
Frank Larkin, communications director for the IAM, knows exactly what he's up against in South Carolina. "A lot of people have not had experience with unions other than exposure to the kind of hysteria that sometimes becomes part of the debate in South Carolina," Larkin says.
When IAM opened its North Charleston office in March, union reps started meeting with Boeing employees off-campus to talk about the benefits of union membership. In some cases, they meet at the IAM office. In other cases, they go to employees' homes.
"Very often the decision is one that's made with a spouse as well," Larkin says. "The spouses have every right to ask, 'What does this do for our family? What benefits does it have? Does this put you at any kind of risk? Does it make your job more secure?' "
In discussions with Boeing workers, Larkin says union representatives have heard concerns about rapidly changing work rules and unpredictable wages, but one of the biggest issues raised has been that of forced overtime. "You can be required to work two of three weekends or two of four. The problem is that the rules and requirements can vary almost at a moment's notice, so the ability to plan either things with your family or your own personal obligations goes out the window," Larkin says.
According to James, some work conditions improved when Boeing took over the North Charleston facility. "The biggest thing was more involvement in the process. You were given more tools to understand the job and understand the product," he says.
But over the years, he says he has heard mounting complaints from his coworkers on the assembly line. "We, together as employees, put our lives into that product. So to hear people saddened, it's not that they're not grateful to have a job," James says. "Everyone who is employed, wherever they are employed, is grateful to have a job. But that's not what we're talking about. When people need an outlet and they need a voice, they need something like the IAM to give them that opportunity."
The most high-profile labor organizing effort currently underway in the Charleston area is happening at Boeing, but smaller battles are being fought on other fronts.
On July 31, about a dozen protesters picketed in front of a McDonald's on West Montague Avenue in North Charleston, slogging through a midday summer shower to shout slogans into a megaphone and demand a minimum hourly wage of $15. The event was heavily attended by representatives from the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA), AFL-CIO of South Carolina, and the regional advocacy group Raise Up For 15 who actually eclipsed the number of McDonald's employees. By the City Paper's count, only two of the protesters actually worked for McDonald's.
But another labor dispute has the potential to become high-profile news because it's taking place at Charleston County's second-largest employer: the Medical University of South Carolina, home to 13,000 employees.
The person at the center of the dispute is Christine Nelson, a registered nurse who worked at Medical University Hospital 19 years before she left the hospital in February. Labor advocates say she was fired and escorted off the premises by security for "insubordination," but a hospital spokesperson writes simply that Nelson "separated from the Medical University Hospital Authority."
Nelson herself is not giving interviews, and the hospital largely cannot comment on employment matters, but the call to rehire Nelson has become a cause célèbre of local Democratic politicians and union organizers. Protesters have stood in silent protest at recent meetings of the MUSC Board of Trustees holding posters that read "Reinstate Chris Nelson." The Southern Workers Assembly has started an online petition for Nelson's rehiring and collected 3,700 signatures so far, according to coordinator Saladin Muhammad.
What we do know about Nelson is that she helped found Healthcare Workers United (HWU), an employee advocacy group that might be the closest thing MUSC has seen to a union since the hospital strike of 1969. HWU isn't involved in collective bargaining, but it has taken an interest in workers' rights. When the City Paper attended an HWU meeting in October 2013, the workers gathered in a conference room at the ILA Hall on Morrison Drive were celebrating a small victory. According to members of the group, nurse technicians at the hospital had recently been required to carry miniature traffic cones with them at all times and set them in front of doorways to mark where they were working at different points in the day. The workers found the practice demeaning, HWU brought it up to management, and the cone policy was nixed, according to the group.
One state leader who has taken an interest in Nelson's cause is state Rep. Wendell Gilliard, a former union organizer for the United Steelworkers of America. He previously got involved in the cone issue and attended roundtable meetings between community and hospital leaders. Now he's pressing the board to reconsider Nelson's reported firing.
"I had warned [Nelson] about this when I went to the first meeting," Gilliard says. "I said, 'Now Chris, you've got to remember, when you're outspoken and you're talking up for the other employees, you have to really watch yourself, because you know the old Southern mentality that they're going to come at you as a target. That's what the South is well known for.'"
According to Thomas Dixon, co-founder of civil rights group The Coalition, attendance is down by about half at HWU meetings this year. "If you cut off the head, the tail will follow," Dixon says. "She has been vocally outspoken about issues there — patient-care issues, employee-related issues. You can actually silence a lot of people by taking a vocal person out of the game."
Now Dixon says he is pushing the hospital to reinstate Nelson with full back pay. He also wants the hospital board to establish an independent committee to review employee complaints.
"They ignored us, so from now until the October meeting, our actions are going to escalate," Dixon says. "Without being specific, we're not going to be as passive. We're going to be more aggressive in what we do — legally, of course ... We are going to make sure they understand a couple of things: that our voice will be heard and that we're not going to go away until it changes."