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Unions see opportunity in the Southeast

By Liz Segrist
Published April 1, 2013

Even as union membership declines, labor organizations continue to march across the Southeast, moving closer and closer to South Carolina.

Union activity was high in Alabama last year, and United Auto Workers are campaigning in Mississippi now. Workers at a company in Spartanburg voted to unionize last year.

Unions see industrial growth in South Carolina as an opportunity, according to several local labor attorneys and union representatives. The automotive and aviation clusters, particularly, continue to attract jobs and suppliers to the Palmetto State.

Union elections on the decline in S.C.

Union-filed petitions to hold elections have decreased roughly 17% in South Carolina since 2000, according to the National Labor Relations Board.


FY 2000
FY 2001
FY 2002
FY 2003
FY 2004
FY 2005
FY 2006
FY 2007
FY 2008
FY 2009
FY 2010
FY 2011
FY 2012

Petitions filed


SOURCE: National Labor Relations Board

Some experts expect unions will ratchet up efforts in the state as it has in other parts of the Southeast, although unionization is on the decline both nationally and in South Carolina.

“The unions will finish working where they are and go somewhere else. South Carolina is clearly on the map because of its automotive and aviation-related jobs,” said attorney Lewis Smoak with Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak and Stewart.

The union membership rate, or the percent of wage and salary workers who are members of a union, was 11.3% nationally in 2012, down from 11.8% in 2011, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in January.

In South Carolina, there were four union-filed petitions to hold elections in 2012, compared with 23 petitions filed in 2000, according to the National Labor Relations Board.

Five S.C. elections were held last year at Alsco Inc. of Spartanburg, Alsco Inc. of Little River, Durham School Services of Summerville, Intertape Polymer Group of Columbia and Republic Services/Allied Waste Service of Fort Mill, which had its petition filed in 2011. All of the companies voted to be unionized except for Intertape.

Also last year, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, or IAM, began attempts to organize the Boeing South Carolina plant in North Charleston — efforts that are continuing through 2013.

The United Auto Workers, or UAW, would like to organize automotive plants in South Carolina, Smoak said. UAW representatives did not return calls to comment.

Right to work
The state’s right-to-work laws can often hinder union efforts here. The law doesn’t make union membership mandatory, meaning the union would represent the entire company’s workforce, but wouldn’t be able to collect dues from each employee.

Gov. Nikki Haley often vaunts that the state has one of the lowest union rates in the country — taking No. 3 at 3.3% behind North Carolina and Arkansas — a sentiment often echoed by business leaders around South Carolina.

The low number of unions and cheap labor costs in South Carolina are often used for industry recruitment.

“We’ve fought against the unionization of South Carolina, cherishing the direct relationship between our companies — who know how to take care of those that take care of them — and their employees,” Haley said in her 2013 State of the State Address.

Many S.C. companies provide health care and 401(k) benefits, among other benefits, that are often desired by employees. Union campaigns are often initiated by an employee that seeks pensions, job security, higher wages and more benefits, said Frank Larkin, the IAM communications director.

In 2012, among full-time wage and salary workers, union members had median usual weekly earnings of $943, while those who were not union members had median weekly earnings of $742, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ January data.

“I think companies, and sometimes entire states, will market themselves aggressively, as South Carolina has, as a place with low wages in an effort to lure companies to locate there,” Larkin said. “Yes, it might bring in more jobs, but that handicaps the workers and almost sentences them to a lower standard of living. Low wages should not be a goal to inspire economic development.”

Southeast, S.C. efforts
UAW President Bob King has said in several speeches that it’s his goal to unionize foreign-owned auto manufacturing plants throughout the Southeast, such as Volkswagen, Kia, Nissan, Toyota and BMW, which has its U.S. manufacturing hub in Spartanburg County.

The UAW has not made any contact with BMW through meetings, mailings or flyers, said Sky Foster, BMW’s corporate communications manager. BMW has an open policy in which associates can talk to their supervisors about any issues, and the company offers competitive benefits and wages, Foster said.

“Our company has always had outstanding relationships with our employees,” Foster said. “For the last 19 years, BMW Manufacturing has existed in the U.S. and the relationship with our employees has been built on mutual trust, outstanding communication and a common purpose. We have every intention to continue all of this in the future.”

Unions have made some strides in the Southeast in recent years. Faurecia and Johnson Controls, both Cottondale, Ala.-based automotive suppliers, voted to join the UAW within six months of one another in 2012.

Also in Alabama, the UAW represents workers at Johnson Controls’ plant JCIM in McCalla; ZF Industries’ automotive parts manufacturing facility in Tuscaloosa; and Inteva in Cottondale. The UAW is campaigning at Nissan in Canton, Miss., as well.

“I’m unaware of any union activity with South Carolina suppliers, but look around the Southeast,” said Terry Clark, a partner with Constangy, Brooks & Smith LLP.

“Look at Alabama... the UAW made significant inroads with suppliers there. The UAW’s President Bob King is leading the efforts to organize companies and reverse a long decline in the industry, and he’s likely targeting suppliers.”

As for the IAM’s efforts, it sent mass mailings to and held informational meetings for Boeing South Carolina workers in the fall. More than 100 of Boeing’s 6,100 North Charleston employees attended a meeting.

The IAM continues to have informational meetings on collective bargaining rights with Boeing employees in North Charleston. The majority of meetings are one-on-one, and the IAM plans to continue campaigning there throughout 2013, Larkin said.

“This is the same union who wanted to move our South Carolina work to Washington when they filed the (National Labor Relations Board charge),” said spokeswoman Candy Eslinger, referring to the charge that led to an NLRB complaint, according to a Charleston Regional Business Report story. “It argued the new assembly line constituted an unfair labor practice and Boeing’s decision to expand in South Carolina was retaliation against the union in Washington state for past strikes.”

There has been considerable support from inside the facility, but many employees are reluctant to be too public, Larkin said, declining to give specifics on the number of employees meeting with IAM representatives, but noting that the number continues to increase.

“Despite the political hysteria over unions in South Carolina, workers there still have the same concerns of workers everywhere. They want health care, secure wages and a pension, if possible,” Larkin said. “They see other Boeing employees (in other states) with that and want to know if it’s possible.”

Boeing South Carolina offers health insurance, retirement, vacation, and work and life benefits, among others.

The IAM represents roughly 1,300 employees in South Carolina, which is considerably less than other highly industrialized states, Larkin said, who has worked with IAM since 2000.

The IAM represents wood, airline and rail workers throughout South Carolina, and recently ratified a new contract with Kinston, N.C.-based Spirit AeroSystems. S.C. union membership has remained relatively flat during the past couple of years.

“Obviously with South Carolina soliciting companies from other states, the possibilities to organize can increase and the opportunities to organize are in relation to the industries that are growing in the state,” Larkin said.

2012 S.C. elections

In South Carolina, there were five union elections in 2012, according to the National Labor Relations Board. Four of the five companies’ employees voted to be unionized.


Republic Services Allied Waste Service

Alsco Inc.

Durham School Services

Intertape Polymer Group


Fort Mill

Spartanburg and Little River locations




All drivers

Drivers and mechanics

Drivers and monitors

Production and maintenance employees


International Brotherhood of Teamsters

International Brotherhood of Teamsters

International Brotherhood of Teamsters

United Steelworkers

Election held

Jan. 6, 2012

Spartanburg/Feb. 28, 2012; Little River/April 5, 2012

April 13, 2012

April 27, 2012


Win, 30-24

Spartanburg win, 7-0; Little River win, 6-1

Win, 85-66

Loss, 142-77

SOURCE: National Labor Relations Board

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Added: 2 Apr 2013

If they succeed, they'll drive manufacturers out of the South the same way they did in the North. People of SC...beware!