Sunday, March 2, 2014

Working and organizing in the South

In 2013, Tennessee added 31,000 union members.  This was the largest percentage increase in union membership in the country in 2013.  The increase also represented a 25% increase in the number of workers joining unions.  But two other stats, Georgia and Alabama, increased their union members by more total people.  They added 38,000 and 37,000, respectively.  The increases were a little more than 22% in these states.  This increase was  only possible because of a decrease in union jobs from 2001-2010.  Tennessee and Georgia decreased their union members by nearly 50% in those years.  Despite the gains in Tennessee, only 6.1% of employees in Tennessee are unionized, well below the national figures of 11.3% of employees being unionized.

Labor experts do not expect these gains to continue.  Many believe that the effort has only been successful because of the historically low union participation rates in the south.  Dr. Barry T. Hirsch, the chair of the American Workplace at Georgia State University was quoted in a Times Free Press article saying, "when you start with a lower base of union membership, it's obviously easier to get big percentage gains when you add members."  Another contributing factor is that manufacturing and construction, two industries usually tied with high union participation, have significantly grown in the years since the recession.

But the factor that labor unions would like to focus on, is that employees are being disrespected, underpaid, and are finally aware of it.  Maybe the Republican talking point that we are focusing too much on income inequality is starting to get to employees.  Ethan Link, the program director for the International Union of North America's Southeast Laborers' District Council, was quoted in an article published by The Tennesseean driving this point home.  He said,"I don't think you can underestimate from the workers' standpoints how attitudes have been changing.  People don't always join unions when times are hard or wages are down.  They join unions when they see inequality or disrespect."  But even if they see inequality or disrespect, unions face a unique problem in the South.

Because the South has traditionally had low union participation, many workers there did not grow up with a union member in their household.  Because of this, many workers have negative views on unions or know very little about them.  It's easy for anti-union politicians to capitalize on this ignorance by heavily linking unions to the Democratic Party.  This is not an unfair tactic for anti-union politicians.  Unions are some of the biggest supporters of the Democratic Party.  Political contributions from unions nearly all go to the Democratic Party.  In areas like the South, this is a widely held belief and one that will not go away easily.  The southern states in the United States votes strongly Republican and ties to the Democratic Party are not going to be popular, regardless of what is happening.  But what is unfair for anti-union politicians is to say that the union dues are used primarily for political purposes.  In truth, the vast majority (close to 80%) of union dues stay within the local organization.  They typically cover organizing expenses, administration expenses, attorneys to assist in negotiations, training, research, and accountants.  Anti-union politicians usually brush the broad failure of cities such as Detroit over all unions.  Detroit also has another meaning in the South, where the decline of Detroit is linked to racial reasons and the fear of racial minorities.

Erik Loomis, labor historian, blogged at Lawyers, Guns, and Money, that the south is difficult to organize, due to "a combination of ideas of self-reliance, the fact that unions are seen as something with northern Yankee ideas, the impact of evangelical religion, and a culture that united rich whites and poor whites through racial solidarity."  We saw the difficulty of organizing in Tennessee with the United AutoWorkers (UAW) and Volkswagen's efforts to unionize their workforce.

Volkswagen invited the UAW to help unionize their workforce to help create an American version of the German works council.  This, already, may have hurt UAW's effort.  During a Congressional hearing on the impacts of mini-unions on the workplace, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation's attorney argued that employers actually enjoy having a union because they are only required to negotiate with the union.  The union then has a monopoly on the workers there.  Some people may believe this.  This may impact the organizing efforts.

State Senator Bob Corker announced that the Tennessee State Legislature would withhold any tax incentives for Volkswagen if the plant was unionized.  These tax incentives would hurt Volkswagen and could potentially force the company to relocate the plant.  The politicians in the state legislature were so potentially terrified of having a unionized workforce, that they would rescind favorable incentives for the company to eventually hurt the union.  This scorched earth tactic was particularly effective.  Workers did state that they were influenced by these threats.  The UAW has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board over this interference in an effort to toss out the vote and allow for a new election.  The NLRB has not ruled on how they will handle it.

The head of the Center for Worker Freedom, wrote a series of opinion pieces in Chattanooga and tried to hold numerous rallies against the efforts to unionize.  Despite loudly denying that the anti-union activists coordinated their efforts to stop the efforts of the union, they were found to share information, articles, and opinion pieces.  This may not seem like much but the UAW has filed this as part of their complaint to the NLRB, saying that it unfairly affected workers' opinions.

Now politicians are going a step further to potentially punish unions.  State Representative Jeremy Durham has introduced a bill that would deny 1st Amendment rights of free speech to citizens who picket.  Durham stated that the reason for his law would be to have a preemptive strike against unions because they are adding too many members.

Union organizers in the South face a number of obstacles if they would like to organize the South.  We saw these efforts in full display over the UAW's efforts to unionize Volkswagen's plant.  But there are still some challenges that can easily be rectified, if the unions wish to.  They need to spend money on providing information to workers to fight the misinformation.  While union participation for the South will likely continue to be low, the information can help change people's opinions of unions and make it easier to unionize later.  This will be a long battle for unions if they want to organize the South, but one that looks to be worthwhile if they want to rapidly increase union participation in the region.  But this is going to be an uphill climb, one likely without the benefits seen in 2013.

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