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Have Unions Lost Their Relevance?

Didi Caldwell
3:55 read

In 1904, my great grandmother was six years old when she went to work at Poe Mill, a spinning and weaving textile mill in Greenville, South Carolina. The mill had opened in 1896 as many textile operations were moving from New England to lower labor cost regions of the South. As a child “helper,” pay was meager and conditions were very poor. Even in the textile industry, there was a hierarchy with the finishing and dying operations at the top and weaving and spinning at the bottom. Workers in the weaving and spinning mills, like the ones my great grandmother worked in were often called lint heads due to the lint in the air that would catch in their hair. As a result, some workers developed an often fatal disease known as brown lung.

When my great grandmother was eight years old, she nearly lost a leg in a mill accident. Some of the other child “helpers,” as they were called, weren’t so lucky. My great grandfather was also a mill “helper” but because he was considered a particularly bright child, he had the privilege of finishing second grade before he started his apprenticeship at the mill. He and my great grandmother met at the mill, married when they were teenagers, and spent most of the rest of their lives earning a meager living at Poe Mill and others around Greenville. If ever there was a need for a labor union to protect workers from exploitation, this was it.

The mill villages of that era were breeding grounds for discontent. The textile companies provided housing (often small and substandard) and sold goods on credit at the company store where many families were indebted to the point that they could not leave the mill. Families worshipped in either the Baptist, the Methodist or the Presbyterian church where a pastor hired by the mill would preach against labor unions from the pulpit. But in 1934, seeds of discontent began to sprout. For 20 days, during the Textile Workers Strike of 1934, more than 400,000 textile workers across the South and Mid-Atlantic walked off the job in protest to decades of harsh and cruel labor conditions that included the employment of children; 10-hour workdays six days per week; and pay as little as $14 per week. Organized by the United Textile Workers, it was the largest strike in U.S. history and erupted into violent and sometimes deadly clashes over the course of three weeks. Eventually a lack of outside support, an excess of textile materials, and tactics of intimidation by the textile companies forced the strike to end without any of the original demands being met.

Despite the failure of the United Textile Workers to organize in the South, the size and severity of the Textile Workers Strike caught the attention of the Roosevelt administration and helped spur passage of the Wagner Act in 1935 and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Out of these laws came reforms that vastly improved the lives of all American workers. For example, the abolishment of child labor and the establishment of a federal minimum wage and a 40-hour work week. In 1947, the Taft-Hartley Act introduced what is now known as the Right-To-Work (RTW) law, which prohibits a company or union from requiring workers to become union members as a condition of employment.

Clearly, unions arose from a dire need to establish equity between employers and employees. Thankfully, they brought about regulations like those mentioned above and helped create agencies like OSHA to protect the rights of workers and stimulate healthy competition. So effective were these rules and regulations that it has permanently elevated the value of the employee within the corporate setting and nearly eliminated exploitation in the vast majority of industries. In short, unions were so effective they eventually worked themselves out of a job.

Many people today believe unions are no longer necessary and worker rights are well protected with federal oversights already in place. This sentiment is especially strong in the South and was resounded emphatically just weeks ago when thousands of employees at a Boeing manufacturing plant in Charleston, S.C. voted against forming a union. Of the 2,800 workers who voted, 74 percent opted to remain union-free despite the fact that their employer is in the middle of layoffs. It was a humiliating defeat for the International Association of Machinists (IAM) who had spent years bitterly campaigning at the Boeing plant in an attempt to sway the factory’s 3,000 workers. The vote came and went without much fanfare but it is profoundly important because it solidifies the South’s position as a business-friendly environment.

Most companies prefer to operate in a non-union environment because it gives them greater flexibility and, reportedly, higher productivity. Traditionally, right to work states have seen lower levels of unionization and are generally seen as more friendly to business. Since the Taft-Hartley Act, the line of demarcation for right-to-work has largely been south of the Mason-Dixon line. However, in recent years, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin have broken ranks with forced unionism and passed RTW legislation. In fact, there are now more states in the U.S. with RTW laws than without, which only adds to unions’ struggle to justify their value. This timeline map from Ohio Valley ReSource dramatizes the progression of RTW legislation across the U.S. and signals a potential curtain call for unions in America.

Mind you, the “rise of the South” didn’t happen because of RTW laws. It occurred due to a renewed focus on developing manufacturing skills and expertise among workers that ultimately attracted major automotive manufacturers like Mercedes and BMW to the South in the 1990s. This has had a galvanizing effect on economic developers and local and state government due to the widespread ripple effect those major manufacturers had on attracting Tier 1, 2 and 3 suppliers. These catalytic projects gave the South gave the renewed credibility as a land of opportunity and made it much more competitive as an alternative to higher-cost union strongholds.

With the relevancy of unions in question and their ability to effectively negotiate better working conditions and pay in doubt, union membership is falling nationwide, even in traditionally union-friendly locales. According to the Congressional Research Service, nearly 35 percent of all hourly and salaried workers belonged to a union in 1954. Today, based on the latest data from Bureau of Labor Statistics, that percentage has dropped to 10.4 percent, and the percentage for workers in the private sector is a mere 6.4 percent. As investment in manufacturing capacity in the United States continues to expand, companies are closely monitoring the rise and fall of union activity. South Carolina – with its track record and the nation’s lowest unionization rate (1.6 percent) – will continue to be strong as it rolls out the welcome mat for expanding manufacturers. But it will face stiffer competition from the Rust Belt states that are passing RTW legislation and elsewhere as more and more workers rebuff unions in favor of an open shop, collaborative working environment.