The increasingly competitive global economy that makes it harder for businesses to compete if they pay union wages is one of the major factors that has led to a decline in unionization across the country, says Dr. David A. Macpherson, Ava Lerner Professor of Economics at Florida State University.
Mississippi has followed the national trend towards decreasing union representation in the workforce. Nationwide the percentage of workers represented by unions has decreased from 24.9% in 1979 to 14% in 1999. In Mississippi, 14.7% of the workforce was unionized in 1979 compared to only 6.3% in 1999.
“Unionization in Mississippi has decreased by half in the past 20 years,” Macpherson said.
Macpherson attributes the decline in unionization to a number of different factors. Most of the new manufacturing growth in recent years has shifted to the South, in part because of lower labor costs.
“Giving the increased competition in international trade, firms can less afford unions and paying those higher wages,” Macpherson said. “There has also been a shift in the labor force away from heavily unionized industries like manufacturing towards service industries, which typically have less unionization.”
Another factor is the rise in the number of women in the workforce. There is less union membership among women, partly because women are more likely to work in service occupations.
Macpherson said there is also more employee resistance to unions because they recognize the union wage differential makes it tougher for firms to compete. Other factors he cited include workers having less respect for the effectiveness of unions, and the fact that unions haven’t spent a lot recently on organizing campaigns.
Jerry McBride, president of the Mississippi Manufacturing Association, says the attitudes of Southern workers may be different from workers elsewhere in the country.
“Typically the Southern worker is more independent than workers elsewhere in the country, and doesn’t want to be told what to do by union bosses,” McBride said. “Southern workers also don’t have a family history of unionization. You’re more likely to be pro union if your father and grandfather were in the union. Also, Southern workers have good communication with their employers, and don’t feel they need a union between them and their employers.”
Mississippi has the third lowest percentage of unionized workers in the country. Only North Carolina and South Carolina have lower unionization rates.
McBride said the decline in unions is seen not just in the percentage of workers represented by unions, but by the number of elections to install unions held annually.
“When I first came here in 1979, we were having about 60 elections a year,” McBride said. “But then the number of elections began to decline. Basically I think the employees didn’t think they needed union representation, so there were not as many petitions or elections. And the number of elections have continued to stay in the range of 20 to 30 elections per year. They are winning a few more than in the past. Last year they won 40% of the petitions.”
Wayman Bell, director of organizers for the Southern Council of Industrial Workers, says fewer elections are being held because there aren’t as many organizers here as in the past. Also, he said that union officials will organize in a workplace but will avoid having an election unless they feel they have a good chance of winning.
“We don’t like to take it to election unless we feel it is a pretty sure winner,” Bell said. “So many times if we get well into the campaign and it doesn’t look like it is going anywhere, we back off and hold off for another day. In this type of business, if you take it to an election you can’t carry, you can’t come back and try to organize again for another year.”
Bell said they won a significant election about a year ago with Georgia Pacific Corp. in Columbia. They also recently heldan election at Solar Group in Taylorsville, which manufacturers mail boxes.
Bell said that there is a connection between the fact that Mississippi has the lowest per capita income in the nation and one of the lowest rates of union membership.
“Being a right-to-work state, all of the Southern states have the lowest pay and lowest benefit packages, and the worst working conditions,” Bell said. “People in the South are giving up a lot by not organizing. And companies are preventing unions through fear tactics. They are using tactics of scaring people about union dues and strikes. Some workers will say, ‘I’d like to have a union, but I don’t want to go on strike.’ That’s like saying, ‘I love the army, but I hate guns and bullets.’ You can’t have one without the other.
“The only thing we have to fight with is our labor. That’s the only thing we have to sell. If we aren’t willing to take that away from employers from time to time to let them know we will, we won’t have anything. It takes a good strike once in a while so companies know they can’t get away with paying low wages and benefits.”
Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org or (228) 872-3457.