New South battles old poverty as right-to-work promises fade

By Margaret Newkirk and Frank Bass

Oct. 11 (Bloomberg) — Nineteen years ago, when BMW announced a new factory off Interstate 85 in Spartanburg, South Carolina looked like the king of smokestack recruiting.

The world’s biggest manufacturer of luxury vehicles would make the city a “Mecca of foreign investment in the United States,” The Independent of London predicted. It would see a rush of industry chasing Munich-based Bayerische Motoren Werke AG. Downtown would spring to life. I-85 would be America’s Autobahn.

“Oh, they were going to solve all of our problems,” said Cynthia Lounds, director of community economic development at Piedmont Community Actions Inc., a social-service agency.

Today, South Carolina is one of the most impoverished states in the nation, becoming the seventh poorest in 2010 from 11th in 2007, according to recent U.S. Census data. Its percentage of residents living in poverty shot to 18.2 percent from 15 percent in that period. In downtown Spartanburg, near- empty Morgan Square features a used clothing store and two pawn shops.

South Carolina and other southern U.S. states topped the nation’s poverty rankings, a sign of trouble in the so-called New South known for its growth and ability to lure employers with laws restricting union organizing. The South was the country’s only region with an increase from 2009 to 2010 in both the number of poor and their proportion of the population, the census said.

‘Downward Pressure on Wages’

The numbers show that even as South Carolina trumpeted coups like BMW, the state’s stance toward organized labor has depressed living standards, said Chris Kromm, executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies in Durham, North Carolina.

“There’s been this kind of undertow of low-wage jobs all along,” Kromm said. “There have been successes in luring industries, there’s no question about that. But it brought an overall downward pressure on wages.”

Job creation is at the center of the 2012 presidential campaign. South Carolina on Jan. 21 will play a key role as host to the first Southern primary in the race to select President Barack Obama’s Republican challenger.

The effect of right-to-work laws on wages has been the subject of intense debate for years. The National Right to Work Committee, for instance, says that employee compensation rose faster in states with those laws, according to the organization’s website.

Boeing Battle

South Carolina’s rising poverty rate coincides with a dispute over expansion of a Boeing Co. plant in North Charleston. The National Labor Relations Board sued Boeing Co. over its decision to locate a 4,000-job factory there, saying the move was intended to punish union activity at its base in Washington State.

“It’s like the Obama administration can’t come up with anything else to stifle business growth in this state,” said Lewis Gossett, president of the South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance.

Hostility to organized labor was at the core of the region’s strategy for attracting jobs: South Carolina joined the ranks of right-to-work states in 1954, outlawing contracts that require union membership or dues, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

‘Come on Down!’

The state marketed its non-union labor in the unionized North, said Brett Bursey, executive director of the SC Progressive Network, an activist group based in Columbia. One industry recruiting poster from the 1980s, he said, showed a man in a T-shirt and a swelling belly. “South Carolina has no labor pains,” it read. “Come on down!”

The fight over Chicago-based Boeing’s efforts to expand in North Charleston has revived the issue. With the state’s unemployment rate at 11.1 percent in August, compared with 9.1 percent nationwide, even some critics of the state’s labor stance want the Boeing plant to stay open.

“There’s not a lot of debate about that around here,” said Joseph Darby, a pastor of Morris Brown AME Church in Charleston who criticized what he said is the state’s emphasis on low-skill work over education. “The area is so starved for jobs.”

Like much of the Southeast, South Carolina lost construction employment during the recession. Its textile industry continued to bleed jobs as well: Union County, about 20 miles from Spartanburg, had the state’s fourth-highest unemployment rate after a sock factory and a mill closed in 2009 and 2010. The county also lost a 150-job Disney distribution warehouse it had lured from Memphis 12 years earlier with tax breaks. Disney moved the operation back to Tennessee in July.

Warehouse Work

“I’m just waiting to see what God has in store for me,” said Joan Bobo, 49, who worked at the facility since it opened. “I’m experienced in warehouse work. I haven’t found anything yet.”

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