Union-organizing efforts falling short in Mississippi

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Published: June 14,2004

Many Mississippi businesses were caught by surprise when a unionizing campaign was quickly organized at Tower Automotive, a supplier to the Nissan automotive assembly plant in Canton. Even though Tower employees ended up voting against joining a union, the move appeared to some industry watchers as a trend toward unionization in the state.

“Workers are coming to us, and there’s a reason for it,” said Robert Shaffer, president of the 61,000-member AFL-CIO Mississippi. “Tower workers were making several dollars an hour less, doing the same thing, as workers at the company’s other plants. Many times we’ll hear from employees who get angry and then cool off. But we were asked into the game.”

‘Serious loss for unions’

Because of the growth of Mississippi’s automotive manufacturing industry, the union vote at Tower was a good example of what most folks were expecting to happen, said Jeffrey Walker of Butler, Snow, O’Mara, Stevens & Cannada, PLLC, in Jackson, counsel for Tower Automotive.

“From management’s perspective, Tower is a very important victory for employers and a serious loss for unions,” he said. “Tower is no stranger to unions. Anyone can tell that from the size of the company’s victory in the election. Tower managers have established a level of trust and good employee relationships. If there’s a lesson to be learned, and a prediction to be made for the future, it’s that companies like Tower are going to be very successful in maintaining a non-union status because employees won’t perceive the need for representation.”

The Tower vote is consistent with the non-union trend in the automotive industry in the South.

“Nissan has a strong history of success in maintaining the non-union status of its Tennessee operations, and Tower Automotive demonstrates that employers are being even more sensitive to the needs and interests of their employees as this industry develops in the South,” said Walker.

Union organizers have moved away from unit-by-unit targeting. Instead, they are aggressively targeting multiple facilities of the same employer or promoting intense organizing in a geographic area, said Bart Sisk of Butler Snow.

“This isn’t only about the automotive industry,” he said. “Nationally and in the Southeast, union organizers seem to be targeting healthcare, with more activity in Florida than in Mississippi or Tennessee. And specifically, they are targeting more nursing homes and residential care facilities than hospitals. It’s an area that hasn’t been heavily unionized, so it’s a target-rich environment.”

Organizing activity tends to occur when there is a significant change at a workplace, such as the opening of a new facility, a change in local management or a change in the company’s financial condition, said Walker.

“In my experience, unions tend to use those vulnerabilities as an opportunity to organize,” he said. “Employees, often with good reason, are concerned and insecure about change, even when that change will benefit them in the long run. When employees become uncertain about their job security, they’re much more vulnerable to union organizing efforts than when things are humming along.”

Other than wages, employees often look to unions for help on rising healthcare costs.

“Healthcare remains the number one issue in virtually every workplace regardless of industry or union activity,” said Sisk. “It’s the issue that businesses and employees are struggling with the most, and no one seems to have come up with an answer. We cannot continue to see healthcare costs eat into employees’ paychecks and employers’ profits at the level that it’s eating into them. We simply cannot sustain that forever, and at some point, we’ll have to come to a solution to this problem.”

Unions aren’t the answer, said Walker.

“HMOs in the mid-1970s was the last idea unions came up with, and we all know they’re now viewed as the devil,” he said.

Unions have gotten a bad rap, said Shaffer.

“For the most part, companies that have unions have good relationships with them because the company, management and union leaders are working for a common cause,” he said. “If there’s a labor agreement in place, the union’s job is to make sure that the company makes money so that the next time a contract comes up, workers can get raises and help pay for health insurance.”

A majority of company leaders who resist having unions don’t understand their value, especially in large facilities, said Shaffer.

“If you have a labor agreement, it sets the rules as negotiated by the company and the union,” he said. “It’s a lot easier for the company to administer those rules than having 500 different people coming in with different views. You just point to the labor agreement.”

With foreign competition, company managers are under constant pressure to boost the bottom line, said Shaffer.

“There’s even more pressure now with corporate accounting scandals,” he said. “If people are part of the process and are treated properly, they respond by getting productivity up and producing quality work, regardless of whether there’s a union.”

The lack of union organizing in the burgeoning automotive and casino sectors in the state sends a signal to industry that Mississippi is a good place to do business, said Walker.

“When we make Mississippi a model for responsible, progressive, profitable business, we’ll all be very happy to see what happens,” he said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at mbj@thewritingdesk.com.

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