Thursday, February 27, 2014

Lock up the silver -- the labor unions are coming. Or not. -- Feb. 27, 2014 column


South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley likes to say she wears high heels not as a fashion statement but to kick unions.  
 “Unions are trying to get in wherever they can…My job is to make sure I keep kicking them out,” Haley, a Republican, said the other day.
 “We discourage any companies that have unions from wanting to come to South Carolina because we don’t want to taint the water,” she told Rudolph Bell of the Greenville News in a video interview posted online.
Such anti-union stiletto swagger probably plays well on the campaign trail, and Haley is running for re-election this fall. But a governor who turns up her nose at good-paying jobs? Be careful what you wish for.
To hear some Southern Republican politicians, labor unions are the William Tecumseh Sherman of our time, aiming to lay waste to the South. Conservative activist Grover Norquist said as much during the battle over whether the United Auto Workers would represent Volkswagen workers at its plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.
The UAW vote was “step one” of a union march on the South, Norquist said.
“They get this (plant), then they start moving toward the other large companies…This is the gateway to the South, and by that I mean all the right-to-work, not heavily unionized, states,” he warned, according to a Reuters report.
Don’t head to the basement with the silver just yet. The VW workers voted 712-626 against union representation.
 In South Carolina, Haley says she would welcome more of those non-union BMW jobs. But “I discourage” factories with unions, she added. Her Democratic gubernatorial opponent, State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, sensibly said that “if Ford Motor Co. wanted to bring 10,000 jobs to South Carolina, we would welcome them with open arms.”
The organizing fight in Chattanooga took on epic proportions, with the Republican governor, state legislators and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker warning of dire consequences if the union prevailed. Corker, a Republican, said he had it on good authority that Volkswagen would add an SUV assembly line, if workers rejected the union.
The hand-to-hand combat was surprising because the company was not fighting the union. Volkswagen was officially neutral but tacitly supportive. It wanted – and still hopes -- to initiate a “works council” in Chattanooga, like those in its factories in Germany and other countries.
A works council brings together blue- and white-collar employees to make decisions about workplace issues, such as new equipment or scheduling, in a cooperative setting. The council system exists in all of VW’s plants except for Chattanooga and those in China. Under American labor law, though, workers need a union before there can be a works council.
It’s preposterous to think that Americans can’t distinguish between the bad old days of union-company warfare and a new, third way of collaborative management. After all, unions have been shrinking in size and clout for decades. Last year, only 11.3 percent of U.S. workers belonged to unions. In 1983, about 20 percent did.
North Carolina had the lowest level of union membership at 3 percent. Five percent of Virginia workers were union members. In South Carolina, 3.7 percent of workers belonged to unions; in Tennessee, 6.1 percent. Union representation is growing in Alabama, where 10.7 percent of workers were union members, but even that is under the national average. New York has the largest share of union members, 24.4 percent.
Southern states are among the 24 right-to-work states, where a worker cannot be forced to join a union because closed shops are banned. Even Michigan is now a right-to-work state; its law went into effect last March.   
After the vote in Chattanooga, the head of Volkswagen’s top works council in Germany suggested that the company might think twice before locating again in the South.
“I can imagine fairly well that another VW factory in the United States, provided that one more should still be set up there, does not necessarily have to be assigned to the South again,” Bernd Osterloh told the German newspaper, Sueddeutsche Zeitung.
It would serve certain Southern politicians right.   
© 2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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