September 13, 2015 / 8:05 PM / 2 years ago

Airbus draws union interest as it opens first U.S. factory

People are silhouetted past a logo of the Airbus Group during the Airbus annual news conference in Colomiers, near Toulouse January 13, 2015.Regis Duvignau

MOBILE, Ala, (Reuters) - Airbus Group NV threw a party for its new U.S. workers ahead of the formal opening Monday of its first commercial jet factory in the United States, and representatives of the machinists union joined the crowd.

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) set up a booth at the Saturday celebration near the $600 million facility, a family-focused event complete with free red-white-and-blue t-shirts and a fireworks display.

The machinists' low-key presence highlighted the new Airbus factory's significance to a commercial aircraft industry that's in transition from a unionized, centralized past to a future where rivals Boeing Co and Airbus build planes around the world, in factories that may no longer be union shops.

The IAM, which represents about 35,000 Boeing employees, said it is taking a soft approach at Airbus: offering information but not promising to create a bargaining unit at the company. About two dozen union members, in t-shirts that said "union values" and "blue collar hero," handed out information to workers on Saturday.

"We don't want to shove it down their throats," said Alfredo Granado, an IAM grand lodge representative from Texas who was at the event. "Airbus said whatever employees want to do, it's their choice," Granado added. "I hope it stays that way."

Airbus prefers a direct relationship with employees, spokesman Clay McConnell said. "But if our employees ultimately decide they want to choose a union, that's their right."

Alabama is a right-to-work state, where employees are not required to join a union. Union members are 10.8 percent of the state's workforce, federal statistics show, compared with 2.2 percent in South Carolina and 16.8 percent in Washington, where rival Boeing Co has jetliner factories. Boeing's South Carolina plant is not unionized.

The Airbus plant will employ about 1,000 when it reaches full production by 2018. Airbus has hired about 260 production workers so far.

A few workers voiced frustration at discovering they earn less than European counterparts.

"I make $17.85 an hour," said one worker, adding he had more experience than German workers who make $21 or $22 an hour. "If we were in the low to mid-20s, there'd be no complaints," he said.

Airbus said its pay is competitive with other manufacturing in the area. Federal data show Alabama employers pay on average $30 an hour for aircraft mechanics and $23 an hour for aircraft assembly workers, and about $16 for general assemblers, which includes auto workers.

Reporting By Joe White; Editing by Andrea Ricci

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