Machinists say Boeing fired workers over union membership
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Some vocal members of the country’s largest aerospace union were fired from a Boeing plant in South Carolina, a move the union says it sees as retaliation for its having made inroads in the state after several organization attempts.
In interviews with The Associated Press, a terminated Boeing employee and officials with the International Association of Machinists say Boeing Co. created a hostile environment following a vote this spring to form a collective bargaining unit among some of the workers.
In May, employees on Boeing’s flight line — a part of the facility where workers perform flight-readiness and other checks — voted 2-1 to join the Machinists union, which already represents more than 35,000 Boeing employees at 24 locations nationwide.
In recent months, six flight-line employees — all described by the Machinists as avid union supporters — were fired for infractions that were not an issue before the workers joined the union, according to IAMWA organizing director Vinnie Addeo.
That includes backdating tool log information, at a manager’s request, and crossing a pathway while an aircraft was taxiing nearby, a practice the union says had happened multiple times with no disciplinary action taken.
“The company is simply doing this for one reason: to deter the support we have here,” Addeo told the AP in a recent interview.
Rich Mester, 48, retired from the U.S. Air Force before coming to work on Boeing’s flight line in 2013. Mester said he joined the unionization effort earlier this year after he felt Boeing hadn’t kept promises on issues like implementation of consistent scheduling.
Mester stepped up as a leader, becoming a shop steward who would help organize covered employees. On Fridays, Mester says he and other union members wore Machinists shirts to work, something he knows served as a way Boeing could identify union supporters among its employees. And they waited for Boeing to sit down with them to hammer out contract details.
In November, Mester says he and two other flight-line employees were fired over allegedly failing to identify that a plane had undergone a birdstrike, which can cause damage to an aircraft and hamper flight readiness. Mester, who has decades of experience in flight mechanics and maintenance, says several other inspectors also found no evidence of such a strike, but only he and other union-covered employees were terminated.
“Everybody that’s been fired has only been fired in the last two months, and the only thing that’s happened in that period is the union,” Mester said. “If you have any kind of intelligence, you know what’s going on.”
The union has filed unfair labor practices cases, and Addeo says he’s optimistic they’ll prevail. In the meantime, Boeing - which campaigned against the organization effort - has refused to negotiate a contract to cover employees.
According to the National Labor Relations Board , a refusal to engage in collective bargaining is considered an unfair labor practice, and companies and unions must “meet at reasonable times to bargain in good faith” following a successful vote to organize.
Boeing has appealed the May vote, asking the NLRB to toss it out because flight-line workers aren’t a distinct group from the rest of the plant. South Carolina’s governor has also asked federal officials to overturn the vote, saying allowing the union would threaten the state’s economy.
Boeing spokeswoman Libba Holland told the AP on Friday that the company wouldn’t enter negotiations while the NLRB appeal is pending. As for the firings, Holland said the company hadn’t singled out union supporters.
“In each of the cases that the IAM highlights, the individual was terminated for violating well-established, consistently applied policies without regard to union sentiment,” Holland said. “There has been no retaliation against any individual based on that person’s feelings about a union.”
Previous organization efforts in South Carolina have failed. Last year, the Machinists failed to attract enough support to represent all of the plant’s hourly workers, losing by a three-to-one margin.
Some lawmakers have attempted to intervene. In August, nearly two dozen U.S. Senate Democrats called on Boeing to negotiate with the Machinists.
In December, U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown and Bernie Sanders - lead signatories on the August letter - reiterated their call for collective bargaining, also urging CEO Dennis Muilenburg “to stop any efforts to intimidate, harass, or terminate your employees” as an effort to undermine the union.
Mester, now out of work for more than a month, said he’s trying to piece together a way to care for his fiance and two daughters.
“I was basically dropped and hung out to dry,” he said.
Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP .