Sunday, July 4, 2010

For Labor, an Intensifying Southern Split

Two recent developments involving to wages, benefits, and the right to join or support a union demonstrate that these issues continue to be important for the South.

First, workers at the world’s largest hog slaughterhouse — it processes 32,000 hogs a day — voted in favor of the union that had long sought to represent the plant’s employees. Second, most Southern senators voted against considering the $14 billion bailout for Detroit automakers that has significant labor implications.

The vote by employees at the Smithfield Foods plant in Bladen County was noteworthy because the United Food and Commercial Workers Union had been trying to unionize the plant since it opened in 1992. This time the workers voted narrowly -- 2,041 to 1,879 -- for union representation.

The vote scored a huge victory for organized labor in the South, the region with the country’s lowest rate of trade union membership, according to the U.S. Labor Department. The rates of many Southern states are less than 5 percent, and North Carolina has the nation’s lowest, 3.3 percent.

The South overwhelmingly consists of right-to-work states that guarantee for employees the right to decide whether to join or financially support a union (Kentucky is a major exception). As a result, the South has been quite successful in persuading foreign auto manufacturers to build plants here.

Although Michigan and Indiana lead the country in auto employment, the next three states may be a surprise: Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama.

Tennessee is home to Nissan’s North American headquarters as well as an assembly plant. Volkswagen plans a new assembly plant in Chattanooga. Other plants in the South include BMW’s plant in Spartanburg, SC and three (Mercedes-Benz, Honda and Hyundai-Kia) in Alabama. In fact, Alabama, which has seen the biggest recent net gain in auto-related jobs, has added more than 30,000 in the last 10 years.

As the union representation vote in Bladen County, N.C., was being counted, the vote in the Senate showed a differing view concerning union membership and benefits. Because the United Automobile Workers did not agree to immediate wage cuts, most Southern Republican senators withheld support for the Detroit rescue plan, even though it had just been approved in the House by a vote of 237 to 170.

These senators, led by Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, clearly distanced themselves from the problems of the Big Three and their union workforces, saying, “Few of us had anything to do with the dilemma that they have created for themselves.”

Who were the other leading critics?

Bob Corker of Tennessee said that the bill did not set firm requirements for Detroit. Richard Shelby of Alabama added, “We have reached a point that labor has got to give. If they want a bill, they can get one.” David Vitter of Louisiana charged, “It sounds like the UAW blew it up.”

Although North Carolina’s two Republican senators split their votes (Richard Burr opposed; Elizabeth Dole supported), most Southern senators joined in rejecting the bailout. Why such an overwhelming rejection? Is the investment of almost $40 billion in 70 U.S. facilities -- many in the South -- by foreign companies in the last 30 years a factor?

Concerning the proposed rescue plan, McConnell said, “Its greatest single flaw is that it promises taxpayer money today for reforms that may or may not come tomorrow.”

What reforms did the Southerners want?
  • Cut wages and benefits to match those of workers employed by foreign manufacturers -- Nissan, Toyota, Honda, etc. based primarily in the South.
  • Enforce equivalent work rules of these manufacturers elsewhere in the U.S.

Although the description at the time by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that Big Three employees make $73 an hour is misleading (because legacy costs of retirees are included), Detroit workers do make significantly more than their counterparts in the South at Japanese-owned plants.

As the debate about labor concessions and benefits demonstrates, the South differs from other regions of the country, particularly on the role of unions in helping set wages and benefits, as well as the importance of the right to decide whether to join or support a union.

How important? Just ask Southerners and their senators.

Note: This posting was published originally in The News and Observer (Raleigh, NC) on Dec. 19, 2008 (page A21). It was also disseminated later on the web by NC Policy Watch, a project of the North Carolina Justice Center.

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