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.
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.
LABOR UNION FACTS
* 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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