Could a Micro-Union Lift Off at Boeing?

Jun 08, 2018 - 5:15pm

Executive Director, Labor Policy

A recent vote for union representation at Boeing’s North Charleston, SC, plant is likely to provide the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) an opportunity to clarify its position on so-called micro-unions.  On May 31, a subset of Boeing technicians at the plant voted to unionize by a vote of 104-65, despite opposition among the broader workforce there.

The concept of a micro-union is fairly straightforward: unions cherry-pick a subset of employees to shrink the size of proposed bargaining units in workplaces where they do not necessarily enjoy majority support. An employer is required to bargain in good faith once the union is recognized, but traditionally the NLRB disapproved of such units.

That all changed with the Board’s 2011 decision in Specialty Healthcare & Rehabilitation Center of Mobile, in which the Obama-era NLRB promoted micro-unions by creating an “overwhelming community-of-interest” standard that made it nearly impossible for an employer to challenge a proposed bargaining unit.  The decision was part of that administration’s concerted effort to facilitate union organizing through case law and regulation, and labor unions were more than willing to take advantage of that decision in numerous different industries.

In December 2017, the current NLRB overruled Specialty Healthcare, restoring the status quo ante, but if a perception exists that the business community no longer has to be concerned about unions targeting employers to form micro-unions, think again.  

As observers of labor policy know, the International Association of Machinists (IAM) has repeatedly tried to organize Boeing’s production facility in North Charleston, where the company builds Dreamliners.  In 2017, 74 percent of workers rejected the union in a representation election that included nearly 3,000 employees at the facility. That development came after the IAM had to abandon an earlier organizing drive due to a similar lack of support.

By voting against the union, a majority of workers made their voices heard, but unions often have trouble accepting “no” for an answer.  So, if the IAM cannot make inroads the traditional way, why not through the backdoor with a micro-union?  

That is exactly what the IAM did when it petitioned for a bargaining unit of 178 flight-line mechanics, a small subset of Boeing’s 7,000 Charleston employees.  In light of the current Board’s decision to return to the pre-Specialty Healthcare standard, it came as something of a surprise when the NLRB’s Atlanta regional director granted this request and even more of a shock when a three-member Board panel denied Boeing’s request to delay the election.

As Boeing made clear in opposing the proposed micro-union, the employees involved are essential due to their Federal Aviation Administration certificates allowing them to release an aircraft for flight, and their work is heavily intertwined with the rest of the employees. In other words, if the micro-union employees go on strike, Boeing would have no recourse but to slow operations or, perhaps, shut the plant down. In such a situation, the union could in effect control Boeing’s operation of the plant, even though a majority of the workers there rejected unionization.

Boeing reportedly plans to appeal the results of the election. Once the Board hears all of the facts, one hopes that it will overturn the election and send micro-unions like this one to the airplane boneyard where they belong.

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Executive Director, Labor Policy