published Sunday, February 6th, 2011

Union backers see room for gains in area

At 32, Michael Smith is starting a new career, training to be a unionized iron worker in Chattanooga.

After working as a mason for his uncle's construction company, Smith said he was eager for the better wages and benefits available in a union job. So the Bledsoe County worker recently began a four-year apprenticeship with Iron Workers Local Union 704.

"My momma is in the Boilermakers union, and my cousin is in the Iron Workers local, so I know the advantages of being a part of the union," Smith said during a gathering of labor supporters Saturday billed as "Putting a Face on Labor."

By the numbers

* 11.9: Percent of U.S. private sector workers who belonged to a labor union in 2010, down from 12.3 percent in 2009.

* 4.7: Percent of Tennessee workers who belonged to a union in 2010, down from 5.1 percent in 2009.

* 4: Percent of Georgia workers who belonged to a union in 2010, down from 4.6 percent in 2009.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Smith is among a shrinking number of Tennessee and Georgia workers joining labor unions these days. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, fewer than one in 20 private-sector workers in Tennessee and Georgia belongs to a union. Union membership in the two states fell by 31,000 last year and is less than half the number of a decade ago.

Organized labor is strongest among government workers and continues to represent thousands of area construction craft workers, according to BLS figures. But most of the industrial union locals that once represented many area factory workers left town with the closing of major manufacturers such as Wheland Foundry, U.S. Pipe & Foundry, Cavalier Corp. and most of the former Combustion Engineering Corp. No new major manufacturers in the Chattanooga area have been organized in decades, despite attempts at DuPont, Magic Chef, Sonitrol Security and others.

Labor supporters, including the Hamilton County Democratic Party, rallied Saturday hoping to reverse that decline.

As the region grows with new investments from Volkswagen, Wacker Chemical, Amazon, Chattem and Alstom Power, labor leaders are eager to boost the unions' foothold.

"Organized labor helped build America's middle class, and having a union gives workers a voice in the workplace," said Jerry Lee, president of the Tennessee AFL-CIO.

Democratic Party and labor leaders sought to dispel criticisms that unionized employees hurt productivity or foster an anti-business attitude.

"We want everybody to do well and we provide a well-trained, hard-working staff to make sure our employers are profitable," said John Holliday, business manager for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 917.

Teachers Union Challenge

But with Republicans in control of the governors' offices and the legislatures in both states, labor leaders say they are fighting adverse economic and political winds.

"Construction and manufacturing employment is down, with unemployment at 10.2 percent in Georgia, so it's a challenge," said Richard Ray, president of the AFL-CIO of Georgia.

Labor last year lost one of the nation's biggest organizing efforts, at Delta Air Lines in Atlanta, after Delta and Northwest Airlines merged. The machinists union is pushing for new votes this year.

Tennessee House members are proposing bills that could weaken the state's biggest union -- the 52,000-member Tennessee Education Association.

State Reps. Debra Young Maggart, R-Hendersonville, and Glen Casada, R-College Grove, last month introduced legislation to "prohibit any local board of education from negotiating with a professional employees' organization or teachers' union" over wages or working conditions.

Rep. Casada said the Tennessee Education Association has held up needed reform and doesn't help boost most teachers' pay.

He said the average teacher salary in the 41 Tennessee school districts without collective bargaining agreements is actually higher than in the 95 with such agreements.

He said of six states that don't allow teachers to bargain with local school districts for wages, three neighboring states have higher teacher pay than Tennessee -- Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.

"The TEA has been against every reform that has come down the pike, and I just think that these type of unions are antiquated and no longer needed," Casada said.

Sharon Vandagriff, president of the Hamilton County Education Association, dismissed such claims.

She said the teachers union has worked to implement the state's "Race to the Top" program and is supporting initiatives such as the public charter school proposal for a vocational high school at Chattanooga State Community College.

"No teacher wants to work alongside another who is ineffective," she said.

But Vandagriff said professional training and better pay are needed to attract the best teachers and help them keep pace with changing instructional needs.

Jerry Winters, director of governmental affairs for TEA, said the Maggart and Casada measure to repeal the professional negotiations law that has been in place since 1978 is "a frontal assault on fundamental teacher rights."

"We believe this would really set back education in this state about 50 years, if it passed," he said. "They are couching this as education reform. But in our view it's just political payback because we didn't support certain candidates who they wanted us to support."

Organizing Volkswagen

Lee blamed most of the fall-off in private-sector union membership on the movement offshore of manufacturing industry and cutbacks in construction.

But Chattanooga is regaining such jobs with the Volkswagen assembly plant and related suppliers.

United Auto Workers President Bob King has said the union's top priority this year is to organize one of the foreign, or so-called "transplant," carmakers in the South, though he hasn't identified a target plant.

There are more than 88,000 workers at Nissan, Honda, Toyota, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Volkswagen plants in the United States, but none of the plants is represented by the UAW.

Volkswagen says it will allow workers to decide if they want to join a union. VW has hired primarily Hamilton County workers, rather than displaced UAW workers from other plants, for production jobs at the $1 billion Chattanooga facility.

Since VW has higher-paid union workers in Germany and some of its boards include union members, Ray said he thinks the Chattanooga plant "might be [UAW's] best opportunity."

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., helped recruit Volkswagen to Chattanooga and said he advised VW officials to oppose UAW representation.

James Springfield, an international representative for Chattanooga's biggest union -- the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers -- told union supporters to "tell Bob Corker to stay out of their business."

Chris Brooks, a community organizer for the grass-roots campaign known as Chattanooga Organized for Action, said the group is ready to support such organizing efforts.

"Just let us know what you need, and we are ready to join you on the picket line," he said.

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rockman12 said...

Don't be blinded by the promises that the unions will offer you. Every unionized company I have ever worked in up north has closed and moved (one to Canada and the other to South Carolina). OH AND BY THE WAY THEY WERE BOTH GERMAN COMPANIES!!!! Look at what happened to the steel industry in Pennsylvania or the auto industry in Michigan. Look at all the companies that have been put out of business. If you want your city and state to look like the cities in those states, join a union. Also, if you work in the manufacturing industry, unionizing a factory is the same thing as signing your own pink slip because they will eventually leave for a cheaper labor pool. Just ask anyone that lived up north. That is what happened up there, they all moved to the south for the cheaper labor. Factories in TN are already leaving and going to Mexico or closing down. Don't put yourself out of a job. DON'T UNIONIZE, YOU WILL LOSE IN THE END!!! Trust me I left NY to find factory work and now it is looking like I will have to once again pack my family up and move to where the work is at due to my job loss to Mexico.

February 6, 2011 at 9:23 a.m.
TNWild said...

I lived up north Rockman,and worked for a unionized company as both a union worker and a manager of unionized employees. That company is doing just fine. You may speak from experience, but your broad brush paints a very inaccurate picture. NAFTA has more to do with the exodus of manufacturing than unions. If I'm wrong about that, explain to me why the non-unionized textile industry has all but fled THE SOUTH for overseas? It's all about increasing profit at the expense of American jobs. Union or otherwise.

February 6, 2011 at 10:11 a.m.
Allison12 said...

The Chattanooga Organized for Action is that silly group that forgot to get date column filled out on by the signatures on the recall petition. Almost all of the verifiable signatures came from our local Tea party. I attended a Tea party meeting where this group was, and I assure you that only have about 20 members at best. To portray this group of kids as a large grass roots organization is fiction.

February 6, 2011 at 10:25 a.m.
hotdiggity said...

So let me get this straight, you are anti-union because you think it was the fault of the unions YOU worked for that caused the companies to move? Rest assured, there are many more non unionized companies that have moved to another state or country for no other reason than to have lower wages, taxes, escape regulation, and enrich themselves. People like you are always quick to blame anyone except corporate greed

As for the auto industry, try reading "The Reckoning" by David Halberstam. The blame for the demise of the Big Three was almost totally attributable to mismanagement, failure to innovate, lack of quality control, etc. by management.

Most of the foreign auto companies that overtook us are unionized in their country, but better managed. The non union foreign auto companies in Tennessee still put out the same quality as the ones built in their home countries.

The steel industry also failed to upgrade their facilities put out a lower grade of steel, and were horrible run by management.

Bash unions if you wish but I'm willing to bet you would take another union job in a heartbeat if offered one. If you are anti union then you have sure moved to the right location. Try getting those same benefits in this area. Good luck.

February 6, 2011 at 10:30 a.m.
cannonball said...

Labor unions are responsible for the fair wages, 8 hour day, vacation and sick days, healthcare as well as countless labor laws that protect all you non union workers.

February 6, 2011 at 10:44 a.m.
rockman12 said...

I had all those benefits that you want to claim are because of unions and I worked for a non-union company. I do know one thing I will never work for a unionized company because there is no benefit of being in a union. Many of the companies in TN pay a living wage. The more unions that move in the higher the living wage becomes and before you know it there is higher poverty and abandoned and contaminated industrial properties that become the taxpayers problems. What happens when its time to go on strike? The last time I was faced with a strike they paid a whopping $75 a week while on strike. I was making $17 per hour. Striking is not a effective tool and it is the only tool a union has to get what they want. Unions are out for themselves and the benefit you see is actually balanced out by the union dues that you pay. You are right I have lived it. It is easier to learn from others mistakes than to learn them from experience. Also NAFTA is partially to blame but you don't see these pro-American politicians (Republicans) doing anything about it. Unionizing does not help anyone out in the long run. Take a look and learn from the mistakes made up north. Unions are a dying breed and will never be effective as long as free trade agreements (NAFTA, etc) are in affect.

February 6, 2011 at 1:32 p.m.
Chatta7 said...

Not a bit of the benefit Volkswagen, Amazon, and others are about to bestow on our community are thanks to unions. People are extremely fortunate to find good paying jobs with one of these companies and are extremely fortunate to receive the benefits they will offer. Do you think these companies are inherently evil and are looking to exploit a work force? BS. They pay a good wage and offer benefits! What is the point of unionizing a plant? There is none. It's a racket. I'm from Illinois where Unions are prevalent, along with the extortion they bring. Why do you think almost every plant built in the last decade is built in the South? Where I'm from laborers at Caterpillar spent more time on strike than at work--and they had amazing pay/benefits! These manufacturers don't want to deal with Unions and I don't blame them.

February 6, 2011 at 1:37 p.m.
TeaParty330 said...

The sock plants in Fort Payne, Alabama and the carpet mills in Dalton, Georgia were never unionized. But nearly all of the hosiery mills in Fort Payne have or soon will be closed and carpet cutbacks have pushed Dalton's unemployment rate near 13 percent. Our economic woes go far beyond whether workers belong to unions or not.

February 6, 2011 at 1:59 p.m.
docspop said...

The greed of the company owners is the need for unions. I worked for a construction company here in town that had 90% of the steel erection business in Chattanooga. All I ever heard him say was that he didn't make any money on the jobs because of the sorry union help he had.He was listed as one of the 10 richest men in Chattanooga by the Times-Freepress.Him and his wife even opened a non-union company in Georgia and it went bankrupt.These companies that work non-union don't pay retirement and few pay insurance.Once the jobs are finished you get a pink slip and the door.What are these people going to do when they get ready to retire and there is nothing there for them.Is S.S. going to feed them and make their monthly expenses?

February 7, 2011 at 8:37 a.m.
MasterChefLen said...

Labor Unions are not relevant in this global economy. Look at the highly unionized sectors of the nation, and how they wrecked the rust belt and New England. Oh, and another, Mafia? Just look at the those idiot thugs picketing the church construction site on Shallowford / Morris Hill, or the military site on Bonny Oaks, they should get some motivation and actually WORK! If the unions had their way this would not be a free country, it would be ruled by a paternalistic union elite dolling out work assignments, and collecting dues through strong arm tactics.

February 7, 2011 at 5:46 p.m.
hambone said...

I'm a retired member of a construction union. In 44 years I've drawn very little unemployment. I can write a check for all that I have drawn out of 1 month of my retirement.

When work got slow in this area I didn't sit on my butt and whine, I got on the road and found work in 14 different states. That's what's good about being a union member.

Bad mouth unions all you want I don't care, but I will advise any young person if they have the chance, to join a union.

February 8, 2011 at 4:57 p.m.
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