By Hoyt Wheeler, West Columbia
Unions are in the news. Protesters by the thousands contest the repeal of public employee bargaining rights in Wisconsin and Ohio. Legislators in South Carolina continue to propose new ways to prevent the growth of union rights in our state. But is this good public policy?
Since the 1880s, South Carolina has pursued a strategy of industrial development that has emphasized offering cheap, docile labor to employers.
The paternalism of the textile companies was benevolent, but only if the workers avoided acting together in opposition to management. That was met by strenuous and often brutal repression. This is the historic legacy of industrialism in South Carolina.
Today S.C. employers have suppressed the efforts of most employees to gather together to collectively assert their rights and interests through labor unions. Those who dare to express disagreement with anti-union practices and laws are subjected to pressure and, if possible, punishment. Our governor declares herself committed to opposing unions. Yet the right to bargain collectively is internationally recognized as a fundamental human right, giving workers dignity at the workplace and the prospect of a decent income. It is the polar opposite of the old practice of human slavery that has long poisoned South Carolina’s society and culture.
A symptom of the great power of our union-averse corporate community is the spate of anti-union legislation making its way through our Legislature. Last year we had a state constitutional amendment that provided that all matters of employee representation would be decided by secret ballot, despite the fact that the federal authority takes precedence in labor matters. A bill currently making its way through the Legislature would exempt S.C. employers from complying with a proposed federal requirement that they post a notice informing their employees of their legal rights regarding unions. I believe such laws violate the U.S. Constitution.
But what would be the consequence if these attempts to stave off unionization were to fail? Well, to begin with, union workers make more money than non-union workers, and are much more likely to have good health insurance and a solid pension. This would be good for the unionized workers, which in turn would create a demand for more products and services in the state. Instead of benefits trickling down from the wealthy, the prosperity of the many would percolate up to benefit all of us. Perhaps more importantly, collective bargaining agreements guarantee just treatment to employees. Without a union contract, an employee can be fired unless she can prove discrimination on the basis of race, sex or other prohibited grounds. A unionized worker can be terminated only for proven just cause, or laid off if there is no work available.
With the possible exception of an odd case such as Boeing, which may be in violation of federal labor laws, I would argue that stronger unions would not inhibit industrial development, the holy grail of S.C. politics. South Carolina can no longer compete on cheap wages, because even S.C. workers will not work for the wages that are paid in India or China.
My experience in a half-century of working, teaching and researching in this field convinces me that competent managers can work quite effectively with a union. Managers, quite understandably, do not like to share power with their workers’ representative, but no one has a stronger interest in the welfare of a business than the rank-and-file workers who are tied to their community and their job. Union officers hold office by the consent of the workers or their elected officials, and must reflect the views of the members. The bugaboo of dreaded union “work rules” are, in fact, negotiated conditions of work jointly arrived at between employers and unions.
South Carolina is a beautiful state with a wonderful climate and kind, generous and hard-working people. Our economy would profit greatly by the increased pay, benefits and security that unions can offer. Unions have the potential to help transform our state into a leader in the positive aspects of an economy and society instead of being a leader in negative statistics and a laggard in positive ones.
Hoyt Wheeler, a retired attorney and professor living in West Columbia, serves on the executive committee of the SC Progressive Network. Among his writings are The Future of the American Labor Movement and Workplace Justice Without Unions.