published Monday, September 6th, 2010

Unions’ numbers, sway shrink across region

James Lockhart says he has been a proud member of the International Brotherhood of Ironworkers Local 704 since he turned 18.

“I really can’t see why anyone would not want to be part of a union,” the 51-year-old president of the Central Labor Council of Chattanooga said. “Because of the union, I’ve never been without insurance and I’ve built a retirement that will allow me to retire at age 55. Not many nonunion workers can say that.”

But as organized labor celebrates Labor Day at more than 200 rallies across the country, fewer Chattanoogans are following Lockhart’s example.

Chattanooga union locals haven’t had a Labor Day gathering in two years and there are no publicly promoted organizing campaigns under way in the Chattanooga region — even with major new manufacturers locating or expanding plants.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of Tennessee workers belonging to a labor union dropped by nearly 13 percent last year and union membership in the Volunteer State is now only about half what it was two decades ago.

And while union membership grew last year in Georgia, Bureau of Labor Statistics figures indicate the number of Georgians who are union members has dropped by nearly 39 percent over the past 20 years.

The share of workers belonging to a labor union fell in 2009 to only 5.1 percent of all workers in Tennessee and 4.6 percent of all workers in Georgia — both far below the 12.3 percent union rate for the entire country last year.

Jerry Lee, the AFL-CIO president for Tennessee, blames developments such as the North American Free Trade Agreement adopted in 1994 for the loss of much of Tennessee’s industrial base and nearly one-third of the state’s union members.

“We’ve lost 268,000 manufacturing jobs in Tennessee since NAFTA went into effect, and those have included more than 60,000 unionized jobs,” Lee said.

Most of these jobs went to plants in Mexico and other Latin American countries.

Over the past four years, three of the largest unionized plants in Tennessee and Georgia shut down — the General Motors Saturn plant in Spring Hill last year; GM’s Doraville, Ga., plant in 2008 and the Ford Taurus plant in Hapeville, Ga., in 2006.

Chattanooga lost two of its biggest unionized shops when Wheland Automotive Foundry shuttered its brake castings plant in 2003 and nearby U.S. Pipe & Foundry closed in 2005.

“Card check” debate

Lee said he hopes unions may increase their numbers through some of the new businesses relocating or growing in Tennessee, especially if Congress approves legislation to make it easier for unions to gain representation and secure a labor contract with employers.

Labor leaders want the U.S. Senate to approve the proposed Employee Free Choice Act — at times referred to as the card check bill. The measure would recognize a union as the workers’ representatives if a majority of workers sign a simple petition or card. Currently, a union must petition the National Labor Relations Board for an election and all members of the potential bargaining group must decide in a secret ballot whether they want to join a union.

Labor leaders claim card check could help unions reverse the decades-long membership decline and help raise salaries for workers. But business leaders claim it could allow unions to gain a foothold in more businesses without workers having to decide by secret ballot if they want a union.

UAW Hurdles

Attempts by the United Auto Workers to represent the foreign transplant factories that have come into the South over the past 25 years have yet to be successful. The UAW has mounted at least four organizing campaigns at the Nissan assembly plant in Smyrna, Tenn. Two campaigns fizzled out before even getting to a vote. In 1989 and 2001, workers rejected the UAW by nearly 2-to-1 margins.

The UAW hasn’t mounted a public campaign to try to organize VW workers, although some VW suppliers are unionized.

Volkswagen, which includes union representatives on its board of directors in Germany, has hired about half the 2,000 workers for its $1 billion Chattanooga plant. The hires have come from a variety of backgrounds, including those who have worked at other automotive shops.

Richard Ray, president of the AFL-CIO in Georgia, says that approach differs from what the new Kia plant in West Point, Ga., used to staff its auto plant.

“Kia has been strictly anti-union and has gone so far as to not hire anyone into their Kia work force who has ever been a part of any other automotive factory that had been represented by UAW,” Ray said.

“We had a quality work force at the Ford plant [in Hapeville] that had received all kinds of quality awards,” he said, “but Kia would not hire any of those workers who were at Ford when the plant shut down.”

Ray criticized the state of Georgia for spending $20 million on a training school at the Kia site when qualified workers were already available in Georgia.


* In 2009, union members had median weekly earnings of $908, compared with median weekly earnings of $710 for nonunion members.

* More public sector employees (7.9 million) belonged to a union last year than did private sector employees (7.4 million) even though there are five times more workers in the private sector.

* Workers in education, training and library occupations had the highest unionization rate at 38.1 percent.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

“The taxpayers of Georgia ended up spending $410 million in incentives to get a plant that seems to be benefiting Alabama more than Georgia,” Ray said.

But Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue said Kia is bringing thousands of high-paying jobs to Georgia. At the plant’s opening, the Republican Perdue said the Korean automaker should provide “a longstanding and mutually beneficial and profitable” future for Georgia.

Ray said he is encouraged by three organizing drives at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and one of Atlanta’s biggest employers, Delta Air Lines.

The American Federation of Government Employees is organizing security officers of the Transportation Security Administration; the International Association of Machinists is trying to organize Delta baggage handlers, and the Association of Flight Attendants will begin a unionization vote Sept. 29 for the two-thirds of Delta flight attendants not currently represented by a union.

“I think we’re possibly going to win all three,” Ray said. “That could potentially involve more than 40,000 workers.”

But unionizing other Southern businesses is likely to remain a high hurdle, according to business leaders opposed to unions.

“Culturally, there is a very different attitude about unions among workers in the South and people just don’t feel like they need or want a union,” said Bradley Jackson, a vice president for the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

“When you talk with businesses, Tennessee’s right-to-work laws and the lack of unions are seen as key advantages in holding down their costs. That’s why a lot of businesses continue to move into our state.”

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sideviews said...

With union membership declining, average wages also have dropped, when adjusted for inflation. Unions helped build America's middle class and without them, we're seeing higher CEO pay and less compensation for workers.

September 6, 2010 at 8:32 a.m.
TeaParty330 said...

UAW union jobs are being cut, but non-union auto makers are expanding in the South. Are unions helping their members who are now uemployed?

September 6, 2010 at 8:38 a.m.
sideviews said...

In the global marketplace of today, we're all racing for the cheapest labor possible. Why are we then surprised when there is so little consumer demand for revive the economy? Labor unions have their problems, as any democratic institution that is important almost always has. Labor unions helped make it possible for non-union members not to have to worry so much about workplace safety, arbitrary firings, food quality, overtime and pension protections. To some extent, unions have been victims of their own success. The American economy grew at a faster pace in the 1950s and 1960s when labor unions represented twice as big of a share of the U.S. workforce than it has grown in the past decade as unions have been eliminated at many companies.

September 6, 2010 at 8:50 a.m.
docspop said...

Mr Lockhart has not been a member of the Iron Workers since he was 18. He joined about 10 years ago when Signal Mountain Cement was expanding.He didn't even go through the apprentice program. He bought his book and now he is head of this program. His family has a strong union background and was well thought of in the local.The down fall with labor unions is the buddy-buddy system. Not what you know.Politics. People being sent out on the job that don't know the work.These contractors are not going to pay top price for second level help. Can you blame them. In the last 2 years there has been more Iron Work in Chattanooga than in the last 20 years with the dam, Alstrom & Volkswagen but the Iron Workers Union have had less than 5% of this work. I'm sure the Iron Workers are not the only labor union with these kind of problems.

September 6, 2010 at 9:58 a.m.
enufisenuf said...

If I have to choose between an expensive union worker and someone who can do the same job with the same quality for less money,and there is plenty of them, I have to go with the lesser expense. Unions were once a good thing but greed and power, even and especially within their own ranks has undermined their usefullness. Defend them all you want, they just don't amount to what they once did except to the heads of the unions who reap in the money.

September 6, 2010 at 10:24 a.m.
docspop said...

I agree with enufisenuf. Greed within their own ranks. Who else has to pay 1-1/2% of their check to buy their work? Plus another 3.5% for upkeep of the leaders of the union.

September 6, 2010 at 11:04 a.m.
labordaymayday said...

if greed and power bothers anyone here, your friendly executives beat any union anyday, by far.

the whole point is that, costs included, you still get paid more than without a union, otherwise there would be no point. you should just ask your bosses why they have to keep so much for themselves and the stockholders. they'll just tell you "it is your privilege to work here, but not anymore; your families will just have to go hungry, cheap labor is more important to me."

September 6, 2010 at 2:34 p.m.
hambone said...

Workers banded together can bargain for a fair contract. The lone worker can only beg. I have been a proud union member for 44 years always worked hard for a fair wage. I'm now retired with a great pension. Any young person who can't afford higher education should chsck into joining a building trades union, it's hard work but it's honest work with great free training and a great future.

September 9, 2010 at 11:53 p.m.
acerigger said...

dospop,I don't know whether you are mis-informed or a liar.I recently retired from the ironworker's trade after 35 years as a proud member of Ironworkers Local 704 in Chattanooga.I served a 3 year apprenticeship with James Lockhart(1973-1976) and have worked side by side with him on many building projects in Chattanooga and sites in many other parts of the country.he is,and always was a good craftsman.Your comments lead me to believe that you may have an "axe to grind"with James ,Ironworkers Local Union 704,or maybe just unions in general.

September 10, 2010 at 12:57 a.m.
acerigger said...

By the way,how many millions is it gonna cost to re-do the cheap-labor non-union work at the Ross Landing riverfront,the UTC dorms,ever been on the Dupont Parkway roller-coaster? You may think that doing a job with so-called cheap labor is the way to go,but it always ends up with costly do-overs and or a shoddy product.

September 10, 2010 at 1:07 a.m.
hambone said...

So true Ace, you pay for what you get!! You get a cheap product from cheap labor!!

September 10, 2010 at 2:35 p.m.
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