Power to the Working Class

[This op-ed appeared last week in Charleston’s Post & Courier.]

It’s gut-check time for Republicans.  Are they the party Donald Trump says they are, the protector of American jobs, fighting for the forgotten working class?  Or now that the election is over and they’ve gotten those working-class votes, will they go back to being the party of big business, fighting tooth and nail against higher wages, health care, and overtime pay?

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Boeing Dreamliner

A little election in North Charleston will force the issue.  A few thousand people working the shop floors of Boeing will decide whether or not to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

Most of us are watching from the sidelines, rooting for our side.  I ought to be neutral.  My father was part of management in a big oil company in Houston.  But his brother, a sergeant in World War II, was a New York union boss.  I can see both sides of this issue, but I have to say, it’s hard not to root for the underdog.

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Former Governor Haley

In South Carolina, the working class is always the underdog. Two years ago, Governor Nikki Haley said she’d rather have no jobs than union jobs: “we don’t want to taint the water.”  Workers who organize are poison?  It’s hard to win when politicians can come right out and say that kind of thing out loud.

I know that the right and wrong of unions can be a bit foggy. When I was growing up, people were still looking for Jimmy Hoffa. The Sopranos cemented images in our heads of mafia thugs lounging at the docks in beach chairs and drawing paychecks.

Boeing’s propaganda is a little more subtle.  Their slick, expensive website, “We Are Boeing,” tells us that the Machinists union could care less about machinists.  Union bosses are chasing dues to fund their lavish parties. In the company’s Newspeak, there are no workers, no employees, no managers, no executives, only “teammates.”

That’s an interesting analogy, because players in the NFL, MLB, and NBA are organized. If you’re rooting for the Falcons in the Super Bowl, you’re rooting for a union shop.  And I’m sure the Falcon’s management—the coaches and staff and owners–still imagine they’re part of the team.

Boeing’s arguments come off a little condescending, like guys with cuff links and silk ties explaining to fry cooks why $7.25 is better than $15.00.

When you clear the fog, that $7.75 difference is going to be sitting in someone’s pocket.  Stock holders and corporate execs might win when their “teammates” settle for lower pay.  The fry cook knows she’s better off with $15.

But fry cooks don’t get to decide.  Not in this Republican-run state, where all the cards are stacked against them.

Unions are about this basic right:  working-class people getting to decide what is best for themselves.  Not trusting the patronizing wisdom of management.  Not doing what their supposed representatives in Columbia tell them to do. Deciding for themselves.

Is it or is it not fair that Boeing pays its “teammates” in North Charleston less than it pays their “teammates” in Seattle?  If Trump’s forgotten working class wants to have any say at all in answering that question, they have to organize.

Two years ago, Boeing slaughtered the IAM.  Chased them off the field.  But times have changed.

Any corporation’s best argument is a threat:  if workers unionize, the company will move shop.  Executives can’t say that out loud, because it’s illegal, but the threat lurks in the shadows.

That’s a big part of why Boeing came to South Carolina.  Back in 2009, when Boeing’s plant in North Charleston employed fewer than 300 people, 199 workers voted to decertify the union.  Not long after, Boeing (coincidentally) broke ground on its gigantic campus by the airport.

Seven years later, 3000 disorganized workers in North Charleston are Boeing’s ace in the hole when it negotiates contracts in Seattle:  if you go on strike, we’ll shift more production to South Carolina.

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Boeing workers in South Carolina

But if South Carolina’s workers organize, what’s left for Boeing to do?  Move shop to Mexico?

Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg talks with members of the media after a meeting with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida

CEO Muilenburg after his dressing down by Trump

Not under Trump.  That’s his signature promise.  No jobs will leave this country.  Besides, Trump has already publicly humiliated Boeing’s management for cheating the American taxpayer.

Finally, the working people in South Carolina have the better hand, and, to everyone’s surprise, a Republican has dealt the cards.

Boeing is holding a pair of deuces.  All the commercials they’re pumping out on local TV tells us they’re not going to fold their cards.  They’d rather bluff.  Maybe they can get the “teammates” on the shop floor to surrender their right to negotiate contracts.

Either way, the bigger question is, Who’s Henry McMaster rooting for? 

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Governor Henry McMaster of SC

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