The growing number of auto industry workers in South Carolina has drawn union attention, drawing mixed reactions from manufacturers and labor analysts.
Ray Curry, president of the United Auto Workers union, said Palmetto and other southern states are fertile ground for organizing because they attract dozens of automakers, battery plants and suppliers that are preparing to turn to electric car.
“I can tell you that we’re talking to workers in South Carolina and across the state, and we’re very interested in representing them in the future,” Curry said in an interview with the Post and Courier this month.
An auto plant in the Charleston area may organize an event this year, he said, but he did not specify which one.
The UAW is eyeing a state that is about to have a bumper year. In 2022, South Carolina will attract more than $6.5 billion worth of investment and more than 5,300 jobs from automakers, suppliers and battery companies.
The auto industry is already a $27 billion economic powerhouse, employing 74,000 workers. Unions represent only a fraction of these employees.
Some 55,000 members of the UAW work in the southern states — about 15 percent of the nation’s active union membership — and build Daimler trucks in North Carolina, sport utility vehicles in Tennessee and Alabama Automobile and aircraft parts.
About 2,500 members live in South Carolina, but most are retirees or surviving spouses. There are 364 UAW members statewide working in South Carolina.
Palmetto’s lack of membership is in line with the state’s overall ranking, which has the lowest percentage of union-represented workers in the nation — just 2 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Politicians in South Carolina have long touted the state’s right-to-work law — which discourages union activity — to manufacturers like Boeing. Boeing opened an aircraft factory in North Charleston in part to sidestep the unions that have prevailed at its West Coast factories.
Curry, who grew up near Charlotte and is a former superintendent of UAW districts including Carolina, is undaunted.
“The South has changed in many ways and opened up some economic opportunities in ruined areas where textiles (plants) once existed,” he said. “The South is growing and opportunities for Southern workers are increasing. Opportunities for Southern workers to be represented It’s also increasing.”
The US auto industry, once a union stronghold, has slumped from 50% of workers to 16% since the first free trade agreement between North American countries was enacted nearly 30 years ago. Membership in southern states is just 4 percent, which Adam Hersh said is one reason southern factory workers earn 15 percent less than their unionized counterparts.
“So we shouldn’t expect that any new jobs that are created will automatically be good jobs,” said Hersh, a senior economist at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute in Chicago last week.
Kara Walter, senior director of employment policy at the Center for American Progress, took a more optimistic view.
“We are at a point where American public support for unions is at its highest level since 1965,” Walter told the seminar, citing a Gallup poll. “We’re seeing workers at Starbucks and Amazon and across the public sector and Microsoft really push and win unionization. So I think we’ve reached a point where the quality of work is at the forefront of what workers want, so we really have a transition to electric vehicles Be an opportunity for everyone to care about and see themselves.”
South Carolina automakers are divided on whether to support organizing within factories.
“Volvo Cars puts people first and respects workers’ right to choose whether to join a union or not,” said a spokeswoman for the automaker, which makes the S60 sedan and will start building the battery-powered EX90 sports car at its factory later this year. The utility vehicle is off Interstate 26 in Ridgeville.
“We also respect the right of our team members not to unionize and communicate directly with the company,” she said.
Mercedes-Benz Vans, which makes the Sprinter commercial van in North Charleston, said through a spokeswoman that it was “committed to remaining neutral on labor representation issues.”
“The choice to join a union rests with our team members,” the spokeswoman said. “We are committed to providing our team members with a safe and professional workplace where they can have an open, ongoing dialogue with colleagues and team leaders on all matters related to their work.”
Up north, the UAW “didn’t provide anything of value” to workers at the BMW plant, which makes the Model X sport utility vehicle for the global market, a spokeswoman said.
“BMW will firmly oppose any attempt to interfere with the further development of the successful workforce of its South Carolina operations that have delivered tremendous growth and achievement over the past 30 years,” said Nathalie Bauters, Head of Corporate Communications, BMW Manufacturing AG.
According to Bauters, the German automaker “has built a unique and uniquely positive corporate culture in the northern region, built on relationships between BMW and its employees, contractors and suppliers based on mutual trust, communication and common goals.” superior.”
The UAW’s Curry said management opposition or political animosity had nothing to do with him.
“We’re interested in workers and being able to talk to workers about what their real value is, their voice in the workplace and other things, even in states with the right to work,” he said. “Kentucky is a right-to-work state, and so are Tennessee and North Carolina, and we have more members in each.”
Workers’ attitudes have changed a lot during the pandemic, Curry said, adding: “People across the country are seeking to better understand and better express their everyday lives.”
Curry said his upbringing in North Carolina served him well when he spoke with workers at the South Carolina plant.
“I think knowing traditional history and traditional practices gives me an edge,” said Curry, who has a bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and an MBA from the University of Alabama.
Charleston is a favorite vacation spot for people, he said.
“Auto manufacturing and parts manufacturing was and still is a core industry in the Midwest, but that wasn’t always the case in the South,” he said. “I was a spinner and a textile mill when I was a kid.”
The role Curry will ultimately play in trying to organize South Carolina workers will depend on his election for UAW president in the runoff. His opponent, Shawn Fain, an electrician at the Stallantis auto plant in Indiana, has been described as a populist and has vowed to take a more confrontational approach with management during contract negotiations. The current UAW contract expires in September.
“This is our opportunity to implement real reform of the UAW and put the power and control of our union back in the hands of our members by electing leaders who will be held accountable by members,” Fein told Reuters.
Curry, who worked as an assembler at the Freightliner plant in Hawley Hills, North Carolina, will take over as union president in 2021 following the retirement of Rory Gamble.He is the past director of the UAW’s District 8, which includes 17 mostly southern states and Washington, D.C.
The union mailed runoff ballots on Jan. 12, and members have until Feb. 28 to return them. Counting of ballots began on March 1.