with reporting by Almeera Anwar
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley used her opening remarks before the CNN debate last night to once again accuse the Obama administration of trying to stop Boeing from opening a non-union plant in Charleston.
“We won that one,” Haley said, referring to the now-dropped lawsuit the National Labor Relations Board brought alleging that Boeing opened the Charleston plant to punish Washington workers for striking.
On the Republican campaign trail, the lawsuit, and Obama’s recent recess appointment of three new NLRB members, have been framed as an example of overreaches of the Federal Government that infringe on the rights of businesses and stifle the economic recovery.
But on the ground in South Carolina, where unemployment reached almost 12 percent before the Boeing plant was opened, the tone is more one of desperation for work than of a principled political stand against unions.
“South Carolina for the most part is rural and poor,” says Mary Graham of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce. “My 13 year old has an opportunity for a career now that would never have existed in South Carolina before.”
Graham acknowledged that there isn’t the same culture of unions in the South as there is in places like the Midwest, or the Northwest for that matter. Only 2 percent of South Carolina workers are unionized.
Boeing’s presence in the state started back in 2007, with the purchase of two existing part suppliers already based in at the Charleston airport – one of which was unionized. But according to Graham, workers there voted to decertify their union because, “it would be a good signal to Boeing,” encouraging them to bring more jobs to the area.
In 1996 Charleston suffered the closure of a massive U.S. Navy base that was the region’s biggest employer, and has been struggling to get back on its feet ever since.
So it wasn’t surprising that Republican candidates mentioned the NLRB several times in front of the hometown Charleston audience at the debate. Or that earlier this month Mitt Romney released this campaign ad, where he tells a group of factory workers that the Boeing lawsuit was “simply un-American.”
Boeing is a big deal to Charleston. The city is planning a huge celebration, with hundreds of thousands of residents out in the streets looking skyward, when the first Dreamliner comes off the line and takes to the air in a few months.
A recent economic impact study showed that the Boeing operation, which is still ramping up production and hiring new workers, had already brought more than $4.6 billion in economic activity to the area. In addition to the 5,000 workers Boeing employs directly, another 12,000 new jobs were created at suppliers and subcontractors serving the plant.
Eric Tesdahl has one of those jobs.
He makes $8.50 an hour working for Kleanhouse Building Management, a California based subcontractor that provides janitorial services in the “final finish” area of the 787’s line.
“I was looking in the paper, seen the ad that said come down here and work with Boeing,” Tesdahl said. “This just fell in my lap basically.”
Now that he’s got his foot in the door, he’s angling for a better job working directly for Boeing.
Tesdahl who comes from a union family where he grew up in Indiana, said he could understand why Boeing Machinist’s union workers in Seattle would be upset at the company creating non-union jobs in South Carolina, but that it wouldn’t stop him from taking a non-union job there.
“Union is awesome, but I’ll take what I can get,” he said. “It don’t matter to me as long as I’m getting by.”