NORTH CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - A union representing machinists and aerospace workers took a step closer to organizing Boeing Co's South Carolina plant this week, holding informational meetings with workers at a hotel near the 787 jet factory in this strongly anti-union state.
Representatives of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) met Boeing employees on Tuesday and into the early hours of Wednesday, handing out information and answering questions about union rights in a "right-to-work" state, one of 23 that prohibit making union membership a requirement of employment.
"We're a lot closer (to union formation) than folks think we are," said Tommy Mayfield, a southern territory organizer for the IAM. "There's an awful lot of support. They're not ready to take a vote yet, but we're glad the process is out in the open."
Boeing said its workers do not need a union.
"We're continuously working on making Boeing South Carolina a place where teammates have a voice and can speak for themselves without having to rely on a third party to speak for them," Boeing spokeswoman Candy Eslinger said in a statement.
The organizing drive was long viewed as an obvious move by the union after workers voted to oust the IAM in 2009 at what was then a plant supplying fuselages to Boeing, helping the plant win the second 787 assembly line.
"It was just a matter of time," said Scott Hamilton, an industry analyst in Seattle.
If the union drive succeeds, it could affect Boeing's ability to move production to non-union workers.
For the union, the drive is a test of its ability to hang on to workers.
IAM "can't afford not to have a campaign," said Gary Chaison, professor of labor relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. "They want to discourage Boeing from locating in non-union areas."
The IAM organizing effort has been in the works for the past two years, Mayfield said. The effort appears to be heating up as the factory begins rolling out finished jets.
Mayfield said the union had more than 50 workers who had indicated they would support a union, but did not say how many the IAM wanted before it would hold a vote to certify the union.
Boeing South Carolina has about 2,000 potential IAM members, Mayfield said. The meeting this week came after the union sent its first mass mailing to South Carolina Boeing workers.
Boeing delivered its first South Carolina-made 787 earlier this month, to Air India Ltd . Boeing wants combined production of 787s from both factories to reach 10 a month by the end of next year, up from a target of 5 per month by the end of 2012.
The union represents 45,000 current and former Boeing workers in Seattle and the surrounding Puget Sound region. It also represents 75 to 100 aerospace workers associated with the Boeing C17-Globemaster military transport aircraft at Joint Base Charleston, in South Carolina, and about 700 workers at the Cherry Point Naval Air Depot in North Carolina, Mayfield said.
Workers at Boeing supplier Spirit AeroSystems Holdings Inc in Kinston, North Carolina, are scheduled to vote soon on whether to form a union chapter, he said.
But the union faces an uphill battle at the Boeing plant in North Charleston. Workers might fear losing their jobs for supporting the drive and the union will not want to risk losing a vote.
"Workers don't want to take chances, especially with the economy and the lack of good industrial jobs in South Carolina," Chaison said.
If the workers vote down the union, he added, "it would be tremendously embarrassing for the union."
IAM has been the most vocal of Boeing's unions in opposing the Chicago-based company's move toward non-union labor. The National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that oversees unions, charged in April 2011 that Boeing built its second 787 final assembly line in North Charleston, South Carolina, as retaliation against union workers who struck in Washington state in 2008. The NLRB complaint came after the IAM filed an unfair labor practice complaint against Boeing in March 2010.
The NLRB dismissed its complaint in December after Boeing machinists ratified a new four-year contract, which included an deal to assemble the new 737 MAX jet in Washington state.
The union also has taken on South Carolina. In January 2011, the IAM sued Governor Nikki Haley over anti-union remarks it said showed a state policy hostile to workers' rights.
Haley said South Carolina was and always would be pro-business. She later described her remarks as "talking smack about the unions." The case was dismissed in August 2011.
Mayfield, who is based near Mobile, Alabama, and was in South Carolina for two weeks of organizing activities, said he had never seen hotter anti-union political rhetoric than in South Carolina.
IAM has chapters in 14 southern states and all but Kentucky are right-to-work states, Mayfield said.
"We're here to answer questions," he said. Workers want to know what a union is and how union contracts work.
Many fear the union "will walk in here and say: ���We're taking you out on strike,'" he said. "Under our constitution it takes 66 ��� percent of the members (to call for) a formal strike. You can't get three people out of five to agree on what they want to eat for dinner sometimes."
(Reporting by Harriet McLeod in South Carolina.; Additional reporting by Alwyn Scott in Seattle.; Editing by Alwyn Scott and Andre Grenon)