A worrisome national meme regarding SC’s Boeing plant

First 787 Takeoff In Charleston SC  K65673

Inaugural flight of first 787 Dreamliner built in SC./Boeing

We take great pride in our Boeing 787 plant down in North Charleston, and with good reason. It shows, as Bobby Hitt would say, that “we know how to make stuff” in South Carolina, including high-tech stuff.

So it is that I worry that it seems to be more and more routine for national media to say this one negative thing about the SC Boeing plant, as I have boldfaced in this passage from a story in The Wall Street Journal this morning:

Never overwhelmingly credible was Boeing’s threat to rip away its new 777X from its unionized Seattle-area workforce if local union members didn’t approve contract concessions, as they did last week.

Let us count the reasons: Boeing was already known to be dissatisfied with the dispersed plane-making that currently has the 787’s wing made in Japan. Boeing’s own new 787 plant with nonunion workers in South Carolina has been slow to get up to speed. A trained and experienced workforce, such as exists in the Seattle area, is not easy to recreate and Boeing is under considerable pressure from customers signing up for deliveries of the new 777X after 2020 to minimize delays and snafus like those that afflicted the 787….

Hey, I want them to take their time and do it right — I’d hate for SC workers to get the reputation of being casual and slipshod. But I hate seeing the word “slow” in connection with SC labor.

I’ve just seen that mentioned a number of times recently, to the point that it has started to worry me…

24 thoughts on “A worrisome national meme regarding SC’s Boeing plant

  1. Kathryn Fenner

    Um, because we do not have a ready supply of trained aeronautics workers? Union busting has a price.

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        Unless, of course, we really got serious about training our workforce and ensuring they get fair treatment, like through collective bargaining ….
        But no, everybody wants their freedom, just another word for nothing left to lose….

        1. barry

          As someone who has been in 30-40 manufacturing plants in SC over the last 5-7 years, i think the great majority treat their employees very well – especially those employees that are willing to undertake additional training.

          I was recently at the Savannah River Plant where a private contractor was doing work. I was impressed with their level of technical ability.

          As I visited with them at the start of a shift, the guys were starting their workday with their daily safety meeting and discussion- which several employees participated in.

          My brother in law has been an electrican at a plant in the upstate (located in a small town) for almost 18 years now. It’s a non union plant – mainly because- as he says – he likes his company and thinks they are pretty fair.

          Is every company like that? no- but the great majority I’ve seen in South Carolina are – and if you do your part- you can have a good job with fair pay.

          1. Kathryn Fenner

            But as my favorite high school teacher in Aiken would point out, some of that is because of unions elsewhere keeping standards up.

        2. Juan Caruso

          Large government and unions are the price we have been paying. You promote the side of unions attractive in the U.S. However, collective bargaining lacks the force in socialist countries of Europe. Were the U.S. to become socialist, many union workers (more likely their children) would be losers.

          In Europe persons with poor education records or skills do not become teachers despite the political pull of their numbers. Those better suited fo earn livings as parking meter attendants must actually become parking meter attendants, for example. And those who start out as restroom attendants usually remain there under socialist regimes in Europe. Upward mobility is not expected in socialist countries as highly as it has been in capitalism, despite what our lawyer-political careerists like the public to believe.

          Without competition, every country, region and individual endeavor insidiously sacrifices the pace of its potential achievements, in my experience. Even in socialist countries labor supply and demand are taken into account when determining wages.
          Collective bargaining? Not as much as demand. The “advantage” is the same as in the U.S. — lifetime employment. With mounting financial pressures, however, the lifetime employment feature is expected to disappear just as it has begun to do in Japan over the past ten years.

          …just saying, you may like to be more careful what you wish for when you live in a country the rest of the world thinks of as a better destination.

      2. Juan Caruso

        Author Holman W. Jenkins, Jr.’s perspective is hardly worthy of the merit the WSJ has accorded.
        Is it true? Yes. Does it indicate S.C. workers are deficient in quality? No, not even by labor union standards. It merely indicates that a small start-from-behind state does not have an embedded workforce it has not previously needed.

        And what about Boeing’s unionized Seattle plant? SC will grow to become undeniable insurance for Boeing’s economic growth in future labor negotiations.

        What Mr. Jenkins’s opinion should remind us, and we must never forget, is how well S.C.’s workers compete for global business with states that champion union labor for jobs from countries that subsidize it (e.g. Germany’s BMW).

        BMW officials said initially expected their S.C. plant to have 2,000 employees and make 6,500 luxury vehicles a month. Twenty yrears later 7,000 SC employees made more than 25,000 BMW’s sport utility-type vehicles (just one model of the models produced in Greer) , and is adding another 1,000 employees on a new assembly line.

        Rather than extolling unionization, which has been allowed of late to handicap once-envied U.S. public education by discouraging merit pay for talented teachers with lowered standards to accomodate the incompetent, SC sells it actual advantages (technical training) and geography
        (we prevailed over Nebraska, whose governor at the time complained that he “couldn’t move the Atlantic Ocean.” )

        Then we won another large plum — the Boeing plant. The supply chains for these plants demand quality the permeates to hundreds of additional SC industruial producers. ISO quality certifications for such suppliers and aerospace producers already in SC (e.g. GE and Honeywell)
        attest to SC’s readiness to fill the bill despite our relative size.

  2. Norm Ivey

    South Carolina needs to make a greater commitment to post-secondary training for skilled labor. The state picked up much of the tab for training and tools for the Boeing plant, anyway. If we had spent years training young men and women prior to Boeing’s decision, we would have a ready workforce, and we would be a more attractive market for other large manufacturers. We handled BMW in the same manner. Training a workforce in a piecemeal we-need-this-right-now manner isn’t going to be attractive to large firms who need to hit production quotas quickly.

    I’m not much of a fan of union-busting policies, either, but I agree with Brad–the strong anti-union sentiment in South Carolina–even within the labor force itself–is a plus for attracting large manufacturing firms.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Actually, as Bobby Hitt told me (from ze inside) years ago, BMW chose SC in part because of our tech system. They liked the fact that we were prepare to train their workers…

      1. Norm Ivey

        I agree–our tech system is good, and training BMW and Boeing workers was the right thing to do. I’m suggesting that if we had programs training workers for the types of skilled labor required of modern manufacturing, we would attract more modern manufacturing. When you look over the list of programs that Midlands Tech offers regularly, how many of those would translate to a modern manufacturing position? Not many. Ready SC is the part of the system that goes into action to train workers for Boeing-type jobs. If the training they offer on demand was available all the time, South Carolina would be better able to compete for these large firms. Georgia and North Carolina seem to attract significantly more of these firms than we do.

        1. Kathryn Fenner

          Do you want to attract manufacturers who only come because you have a cheap, compliant workforce that you will hurry up and train, or manufacturers who come because you have a well-trained workforce capable of doing top quality, high value work right off the bat?

          I want the latter.

          A fair employer has nothing to fear from a union.

          1. Norm Ivey

            That’s what I’m saying–we should be training the workforce for jobs that are not here yet–not waiting until someone expresses interest and then “hurry up and train.” I’m also not opposed to “hurry up and train” if that’s the difference between getting the plant and losing it.

            Unions serve a valuable purpose–protecting workers against the greed of the corporation foremost. We need more of them here. I think given the opportunity, skilled labor here would begin to see the benefit of unions. It wasn’t the union that killed the Mack plant in Winnsboro despite their union fight.

            Unfortunately, because we have a large unskilled workforce in South Carolina, it’s difficult for many to see the value of the union–there’s always more unskilled labor waiting outside the door to take their job.

          2. barry


            I want employers that are being priced out of their current locations to look to South Carolina and consider moving because they can build their product here cheaper- whether it’s cheaper salaries – or cheaper start up costs and utility costs.

            and I want our young people to be trained in enough numbers that other companies will want to start up here.

          3. Kathryn Fenner

            So many companies are moving back to the US! Off shore manufacturing is less attractive than previously thought.

  3. Steve Gordy

    Why is this surprising or worrisome? I heard Joe Wilson point with pride last Friday to the fact that our status as a right-to-work state had been the key factor in convincing Boeing to locate here. This was at the Aiken Chamber of Commerce (he got applause for this line), which is ironic, considering how much Aiken has benefited from being able to import a highly skilled workforce that was, in many cases, educated elsewhere. When being anti-union and low-cost are your selling points, they can also undercut you. If labor cost were the only determining factor, we wouldn’t have seen the phenomenon recently noticed of some American manufacturers bringing production back onshore. If the South Carolina GOP continues its war on public education, we may see this meme became a lot more common.

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      Aiken: in almost all cases educated elsewhere. I was in college before I stopped assuming that people without southern accents were the smart ones.

  4. Bart

    Now just how long has South Carolina been an economy based on industrial and manufacturing over agricultural and textile? It takes time for a labor force to transition from one to the other and without the Boeings and BMWs, the state will always remain a low skilled worker state.

    Boeing took a chance and it will take time for the labor force to reach the same level as the one in Washington but eventually, it will. In the interim, naturally the critics will continue to point out our flaws and shortcomings and blame them on resistance to unions. If the state was a union state, do you think for one moment Boeing or BMW would have located here? Highly doubtful.

    1. Steve Gordy

      While resistance to unions is a selling point in persuading companies to open facilities here, resistance to taking education seriously (as seriously as we take football) is what helps to keep SC in the state of being a perennial economic dependent. Like Blanche Dubois, we always rely on the kindness of strangers.

    1. Doug Ross

      Ha ha ha.. good one, Burl. Wait, you weren’t kidding?

      The least competent and laziest people I have worked with in my 30+ years have been union members.

      1. Doug Ross

        Anecdotal quotes from union people I have worked with:

        “Sorry, I need to stop this meeting so I can take my union mandated 15 minute smoke break”
        “I purposefully put bugs into my programs so I can get paid overtime to fix them”

        I produced more code in one month than three unions programmers produced in a year.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          “I purposefully put bugs into my programs so I can get paid overtime to fix them”…

          And to think, some people say union workers lack enterprise and initiative…

    2. Juan Caruso

      What a jaded opinion, my fellow! Is your opinion based upon any facts at all? Would such facts rely entirely on the number of employees dismissed for incompetence (unavailable and so the imprudent might presume the statistic to be zero for protected unionized employees), or perhaps the statistic you have not even bother to provide would be based upon a highly discriminatory and popular stereotype of southern rednecks!

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