It is no coincidence that the incredible resurgence of manufacturing in the Southeastern United States occurred in the absence of unionized facilities. Automotive, aerospace, and appliance manufacturers have flocked to the South, from the Carolinas, to Alabama, and Kentucky, where they enjoy pro-employer wages without the increased monetary and non-monetary costs associated with a union environment. Of course, there are other advantages such as certain tax incentives and lower costs of living in comparison to elsewhere in the country. But a non-union labor force is certainly one of the main factors that drove the manufacturing boom in the South during the past few years. Even foreign companies like Chinese appliance manufacturer Haier Group and computer manufacturer Lenovo opened factories in the Carolinas, recognizing the benefits of a lower cost workforce. BMW’s largest facility outside of Germany is located in Greer, South Carolina.
While these employers believe that working conditions for their employees are excellent and safe, unions have put the full-court press on unionizing efforts throughout the South, especially in automotive manufacturing facilities. Up to now, the unions have not had much success. The UAW was unsuccessful in its attempt to organize a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee earlier this year. The Sheet Metal Workers International Association also failed three times to organize Austal’s Mobile, Alabama shipyard. Even without clear victories, union organizing is continuing. And union organizing activities don’t stop with the OEM’s. There are clear efforts by the UAW to break into non-union Tier 1 and Tier 2 supplier facilities in the South.
U.S. unions are also gaining support from labor representatives on the board of major companies that have operations where union environments are the norm, such as Germany. Just this week, for instance, the lead labor official on Daimler AG’s supervisory board, Michael Brecht, voiced his support for unionizing at Mercedes’ plant in Alabama, where the UAW has yet to gain majority support. Brecht, who holds a seat on Daimler’s board consistent with a German legal requirement that labor representatives hold half of the company’s board seats, voiced his disdain over the fact that the Alabama plant is non-union and made his showing of solidarity with the UAW very apparent. Daimler insists that it remains neutral on union issues, despite claims from some employees that the company has stifled union organizing efforts. Brecht, however, believes that all Daimler plants should be unionized, even in the U.S. He notes that the Company’s refusal to allow unionization in Alabama is “unacceptable,” especially where Daimler’s other plants around the world are universally unionized.
It will be interesting to see whether labor supporters in companies with a presence in the Southeastern U.S. are able to influence support for the UAW and other labor unions. And the battle is just heating up.
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