News Columns & Blogs

Bestler | Unions not all bad but face uphill battle in SC

Boeing Aircraft Co. has been saturating Charleston TV stations in recent days with slick messages urging a vote against unionization at the plant.

Using workers (or maybe actors?), the ads say Boeing is a great place to work, pays well and has been a great addition to Charleston and South Carolina.

Adds one worker: “We don't need a third party'” -- a reference to the International Association of Machinists, which is trying to bring Boeing workers under its umbrella.

The vote was scheduled for Wednesday, but on Friday the union said a vote would be delayed for at least six month because of a hostile atmosphere created by Boeing.

Whenever the vote is held, it is no exaggeration to say the IAM faces an uphill battle.

South Carolina has always been vehemently anti-union, which was a huge factor in luring BMW, Michelin and Boeing to make major investments in the state.

And I expect many, maybe most, of the Boeing workers grew up in this union-hating culture. Nor have I seen much of a demand from workers for change -- no Norma Rae yelling, “Union! Union! Union!”

But, like the man said, it's never over 'til it's over.

I grew up in another era -- pre-Ronald Reagan and the air traffic controllers -- and another culture and have always looked on unions as a kind of necessary evil.

As much as I disliked a Jimmy Hoffa and other union toughs, I saw union membership as a more effective way to negotiate with employers than as an individual. Strength in numbers, you know.

In fact, I belonged to two unions while working my way through college.

I was a Teamster during a summer job at a beer company in St. Paul, Minn., loading trucks and delivering kegs and cases of beer around the city.

My fellow Teamsters loved Hoffa and the union, which had just opened Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. A few of them couldn't wait to visit it on vacation because it was “theirs.”

As a part-time bartender, I also was a member of a bartender's union.

In both cases, I thought the pay was satisfactory; taking dues out of my paycheck was like taking out taxes. A way of life.

Later, as part of management at a major newspaper, I was on the other side of an effort to form a newspaper guild. It was a hard place to be because my heart was always pro-guild. Sorry, editors.

The guild effort didn't get ugly, necessarily, but it estranged me from many friends with whom I still played basketball and softball. In the newsroom, we were on opposite sides.

Even now, after 25 years in South Carolina, I'm enough of a populist to believe in some form of collective bargaining as a way to improve pay and benefits and working conditions.

I don't know anything about working at Boeing. Indeed, the message in the ads could be spot on.

It may be a good place to work. It may pay well. And it certainly has been a great addition for Charleston and South Carolina.

Still, I believe unions can give the workers some parity in determining their future. Good luck on that in South Carolina, huh?

Contact Bob Bestler at