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.”

South Carolina has seen good business news in the past year. Manufacturing employment in August was up 11,000 jobs from a year earlier, including 1,600 new jobs at BMW. The state beat out North Carolina for a Continental Tire company factory on Oct. 6. It’s getting an Amazon distribution center near Columbia.

BMW’s South Carolina plant directly and indirectly supported 23,050 jobs in 2007 and 2008, generating $1.2 billion in wages, according to a study by the Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. The automaker’s direct employees at the plant accounted for 2.2 percent of the state’s manufacturing employment, the study said.

Expectations ‘Exceeded’

“Since announcing our BMW operations in South Carolina in 1992, and beginning production in 1994, our expectations have continually been exceeded,” Max Metcalf, a spokesman, said in an e-mail.

Some of the new jobs in the state, though, have carried a downside. Employers began hiring through staffing agencies, instead of directly. The jobs were temporary and lower paid than permanent positions. At BMW, the difference was $15 per hour compared with $15.50, Metcalf said. The company needs the flexibility to respond to demand, he said, and recently moved many temporary workers to permanent status.

While South Carolina’s private businesses have added employment, the state lost 15,700 government positions in the year ending in August.

Juanita Dixon, 33, lost her seven-year government job in February. A community-college graduate and mother of two, Dixon earned $10.25 an hour, paid vacation and insurance as a medical assistant at a county rehabilitation center. Budget cuts closed it, she said in a phone interview.

Five Applications Daily

Dixon put in five job applications daily, she said. When BMW’s staffing contractor held a job fair at a hotel, she applied and was told the wage was $13 an hour.

She passed a written test, but failed a physical one. “You have to put tires on a car, and you have to do so many in so much time,” Dixon said. “They said, ‘You can reapply in a year.’”

Dixon now works at Spartanburg’s new Adidas Distribution Center, earning $9 an hour doing factory warehouse work. She got the job through a staffing agency in September: “It’s a temporary job for three months,” she said.

When BMW arrived in the city, the look of the place was transformed, said Lounds, of Piedmont Community Actions. Factory workers tooled around town in cars bought with employee discounts.

“There were more BMWs around here than Fords,” she said.

Drawn by BMW

Out on I-85, BMW now employs 7,000, nearly twice the 4,000 promised in the 1990s, said Metcalf, the spokesman. The automaker attracted more than 40 suppliers to the state, spurred investment in the Port of Charleston and invested $750 million during the recession in Spartanburg, which now has 277,916 people, according to the census.

Yet the I-85 “autobahn” of industry didn’t materialize, said Holly Ulrich, senior scholar at the Strom Thurmond Institute of Government and Public Affairs at Clemson University.

“Those predictions were made during the boom years for South Carolina and the South, before a series of national economic catastrophes,” Ulrich said. “I haven’t seen evidence that it happened.”

On Sept. 27, five days after the census poverty numbers were released, the first-term Republican governor, Nikki Haley, tried to boost morale. She ordered state workers to change the way they answered the phone.

By the next morning, callers to an unemployment office in Spartanburg heard the new message: ‘It’s a great day in South Carolina.”

–Editors: Flynn McRoberts, Stephen Merelman

To contact the reporters on this story: Margaret Newkirk in Atlanta at; Frank Bass in Washington at To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Tannenbaum at

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Town halls expand Network’s voter ID campaign

The SC Progressive Network is holding a series of community forums titled “Voter ID and the new Jim Crow.” Network Director Brett Bursey will moderate. Each event will include a Q&A session and instructions for activists to work the issue in their community.

The forums will address the moving target of DOJ pre-clearance, and where we should put our efforts to try and stop it. The meeting will recognize photo ID as a symptom of larger problems, and will focus discussion on sharpening a strategy to address The Big Picture.

The Network is planning a statewide summit on Oct. 29 in Columbia to sharpen our focus and efforts. Details and agenda to be posted as they become available.

Call  803-808-3384 or email for details or to schedule a meeting in your area.

•  •  •

Sept. 12, Florence: 7pm at Poyner Auditorium, 319 South Dargan St.

Sept. 15, Beaufort: 6:30pm at Golden Corral, 122 Robert Smalls Pkwy. or Hwy. 170. Come early if you want to have dinner.

Sept. 20, Charleston: 7pm at ILA Hall, 1142 Morrison Dr.

Sept. 22, Greenville: 7pm at Furman University, Younts Conference Center.

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Latest news from Network’s photo ID campaign

On July 8, the SC Progressive Network held a second press conference on the photo ID law to clear up misconceptions repeated by the governor and lawmakers, and to invite the public to submit comments to the US Dept. of Justice, which is reviewing the new law to consider whether it abridges the minority vote.

See more photos from the media event here.

Below is a sample of the media coverage the press conference generated.

Group seeks those impacted by new SC voter ID law

JIM DAVENPORT, Associated Press
July 8, 2011
South Carolina voting rights advocates said Friday they are looking for voters who might not be able to have their votes counted next year under one of the nation’s toughest voter identification laws. The South Carolina Progressive Network is trying to identify some of the nearly 180,000 people who are now registered to vote but who lack the state- or federal-issued photographic identification called for under the new law. Those people would be able to cast provisional ballots, but would have to show the required identification within three days to have their votes counted. Read more:

Critics challenge ‘Voter ID’ plan

The State
When Delores Freelon was born in 1952, her mother could not decide on a name for her. So the space on the birth certificate for a first name was left blank. In the decades since, the incomplete birth certificate did not prevent Freelon from getting her driver’s license and voter registration card in the various states she has lived, including Texas and Louisiana.
But a measure — already passed by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Nikki Haley — will create new hurdles for Freelon and others to vote. Read more:

Group aims to block voter ID law
Opponents push for rejection by U.S. Justice Dept.

The Post and Courier
COLUMBIA — The S.C. Progressive Network issued a warning Friday to the nearly 25,000 registered voters in the tri-county area without a state-issued photo ID: You could run into trouble the next time you go to the polls. The advocacy organization is urging the U.S. Department of Justice to reject a new South Carolina law that will require all voters to carry a picture ID to cast a ballot in future elections. The state’s Republican leadership pushed for the new law, citing a need to guard against voter fraud even though there has been no substantive proof of widespread voter fraud for years in the state. Read more:

Progressives Push to Stop Implementation of Voter ID Law

Free Times
Five TV cameras, two reporters from The State, one from The Associated Press, a reporter from the Charleston Post & Courier and another from the South Carolina Radio Network, among others, swarmed around a podium in the lobby of the State House July 8, as South Carolina Progressive Network director Brett Bursey warned voters here that they might have trouble casting a ballot under a new state law. It comes during a time of a national pushback against such regulations.

Read more:

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SC groups join forces to rally for a moral budget

By Becci Robbins
SC Progressive Network

A growing number of churches, educators, health care providers, grassroots groups and professional organizations will rally in Columbia on Saturday, March 12, at 1pm at the State House to demand that lawmakers “Stop the cuts! Fund a moral budget.” The House begins debate on the budget March 15.

“Budgets are moral documents” said Rev. Brenda Kneece, Executive Minister of the SC Christian Action Council. “A civilized society chooses to do together what individuals or organizations cannot do alone: protect all and provide for the vulnerable.”

While the state’s political leadership says there is no alternative to further cuts to our bare-bones budget, they are ignoring the fact that more equitable cuts could be made through broad and fair reforms to our tax code.

According to the recent report by the Tax Realignment Commission (TRAC), created by the legislature to reform SC tax codes — a report that was quickly shelved — South Carolina imposes one of the country’s lowest individual income tax burdens. An estimated $3.7 billion was left out of the current budget due to sales and service tax exemptions alone.

Rally sponsors hold press conference Feb. 24 in the SC State House.

“Taxes are low in South Carolina, and getting lower,” said Dr. Holley Ulbrich, Distinguished Professor Emerita of Economics at Clemson University and a Senior Scholar at the Strom Thurmond Institute. “South Carolina ranks 47th out of 51 states (including the District of Columbia) in taxes as a percent of income, and 51st in taxes per capita. The 2010 budget per person was at the 1984 level in constant dollars.”

“The problem isn’t money,” said Brett Bursey, Director of the SC Progressive Network. “The problem is a political ideology that’s both anti-government and anti-taxes. Exemptions, deductions and tax credits leave enough money out of the state budget to meet our needs, with some left over for improvements. We have to send a clear message to the legislature that the race to the bottom must end, and revenue must be raised to fund critical services.

“The money is there,” Bursey said. “The political will is not.”

“We are 1,000 percent behind this rally and are urging all state employees to be there,” said SC State Employee’s Association Interim Director Joe Benton. “Further budget cuts will result in more layoffs and furloughs that hurt not only state employees and their families, but the citizens they serve.”

Jackie Hicks, President of the South Carolina Education Association, South Carolina’s oldest and largest professional association of educators, is encouraging her members to rally to protect and defend public education. “For too long, we’ve allowed legislators to shirk their duty to provide adequate, equitable and stable funding for South Carolina’s public schools and the students they serve. Our current funding is totally inadequate for the educational services our students need.”

Rev. Kneece said, “As faithful citizens we are called to come together through budgets and the taxes that fund them to “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy (Proverbs 31:8-9, New International Version).”

Over the past two years, the state budget has been cut from $7.9 to $5 billion, making severe cuts to state services. Further cuts, being debated in the legislature, propose more reductions in health care services to nearly 900,000 Medicaid recipients, ending preventative care, AIDs drug programs, aid for needy children; more teacher’s jobs lost, larger classes, higher tuition; the end of SCETV and the Arts Commission – just to name a few of the casualties.

Life will be harder, with fewer opportunities, especially for the 25 percent of our children living in poverty.

Initial Sponsors: SC AFL-CIOSC Christian Action CouncilSC Education Association •  S.C. HIV/AIDS Care Crisis Task Force • SC NAACP •  SC Progressive NetworkSC State Employees AssociationTies That Bind

For more information, see, email or call 803-808-3384.

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Calling all SC political junkies

Tired of politics as usual?

Don’t miss the SC Progressive Network’s Conference April 10!

Booker T. Washington Cultural Arts Center
2611 Grant St., Columbia SC

FREE and open to the public!

Join us for the SC Progressive Network’s 14th annual spring conference, beginning with non-partisan policy work and ending with political action. This year, we have candidates from our own ranks running for office. Given these politically charged and challenging times, this promises to be a lively day of talking politics. We need YOU at the table!


11 am: Registration and light lunch (RSVP for lunch required by4/8/10. Pay $10 on site. Please let us know of any dietary restrictions.)

Noon-2:30pm: Progressive Network Education Fund meeting. If your organization is part of the Network’s nonpartisan coalition, your organization has a seat on the board and should be represented. Remember: this is YOUR organization. It is only as strong as you make it.

  • Network Co-chairs Rep. Joe Neal and Donna Dewitt will review our policy struggles and lead a discussion on sharpening our strategy and tactics.
  • Network Director Brett Bursey will lead a workshop on “Corporations and Democracy.”
  • “Jobs With Rights” organizer Ken Riley, President of the Charleston longshoreman’s union will present the campaign’s plan to fight SC’s anti-worker laws.

3-5pm: Progressive Voter Coalition meeting. SC ProVote is a political action committee of individual Network members and allies. ProVote supports candidates, regardless of party, that support our values of a just and inclusive democracy.

  • We’ll hear from candidates seeking our endorsement, target races and refine strategies and tactics.
  • We’ll discuss Progressive Caucus plans for the state Democratic Convention April 24.
  • Political consultants Carey Crantford and Wil Brown will lead a session on effective messaging of campaigns.

For more information or to RSVP for lunch, call 803-808-3384 or email

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