'Union' Now 'the U-Word' in the South

CHARLOTTE, N.C. ( TheStreet) -- It is not a good time for unions. In some regions, such as ours, "union" has become "the U-word."

This may come as a surprise, but here in the South, we actually have unions, and some locals have thousands of members. Some have been here for a century.

These are little-known facts, perhaps overshadowed by the rhetoric of our leaders.
Boeing Co. machinists picket Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2008, at a gate to Boeing's giant production plant in Everett, Wash.

These leaders seem to hate labor. They proclaim, at every turn, that unions do harm. Sometimes, it seems that a region that once turned its wrath on minorities (but no longer does) has simply rechanneled the hatred.

For instance, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley had this to say in a recent Wall Street Journal column: "As is often the case, a win for people and businesses is a loss for the labor unions, which rely on coercion, bullying and undue political influence to stay afloat."

Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.), on Coffee and Markets, a conservative podcast, said that President Obama stocked the National Labor Relations Board "with union thugs."

And in a recent column in The Washington Post, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, from Virginia, said that President Obama is "fueled by efforts to incite class warfare."

By the way, it has long been said that North Carolina is a valley of humility between two mountains of conceit -- which perhaps helps to explain the language of our neighbors to the north and south.

Certainly, their views reflect the intense competition between states for manufacturing jobs, combined with the Republican Party's longstanding conflict with organized labor.

So maybe the rhetoric is just excessive, like the coverage of Hurricane Irene. Maybe it is one more sign that we live in an over-the-top society, one where we must demonize and exaggerate to get attention. Or maybe, nothing at all has changed in South Carolina, which 150 years ago declared war on the United States and in parts of Virginia, site of the second Confederate capital.

The Federal Law Questioned by S.C.

In South Carolina, it seems that every once in a while the politicians elect to drive the train off the tracks by asserting that federal law has no relevance to them.

On this Labor Day, the federal law in question is the National Labor Relations Act. It took effect in 1935 and protects the right to strike. As a corollary, it prevents companies from moving work in retaliation for labor actions. Surely, our leaders would agree that unions have the right to strike, not because strikes are good, but because the alternative would be to deny this basic right.

In October, 2009, Boeing ( BA) announced that it would build a second 787 assembly line in North Charleston, S.C.. The move was a blow to Washington state and to the International Association of Machinists -- which represents nearly 30,000 Boeing workers -- and a boost to the South Carolina economy.

The company spent $750 million to build the plant, which began production in July.

Three months earlier, the general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board issued a complaint against Boeing, arguing that its decision to build the plant represented an illegal retaliation for a 2008 IAM strike.

While this complaint may seem dramatic, in fact it is limited in scope. It applies only to the production of three airplanes a month, the initial quota in Charleston; Boeing has already announced plans to build at least ten a month. The complaint does not say that Boeing cannot manufacture airplanes in Charleston, yet the politicians seem to enjoy saying that Obama and the NLRB are trying to halt aircraft production in Charleston. That is just South Carolina politicians being inflammatory -- hardly a recent phenomenon.

In fact, one can easily make the case that this matter can be resolved through negotiations, a process that does not typically benefit from inflammatory language.

It is important to observe that the labor unions in the Carolinas have not brought ruin. The Teamsters Union has thousands of members here. In Charleston, the International Longshoreman's Union Local represents hundreds of black workers, who have worked the tough jobs on the docks for more than a century and who first formed a protective association, the predecessor to their union, right after the Civil War.

In Charlotte, Bill Wise has been president of the Charlotte local of the International Association of Machinists for 11 years. The 2,200 active members are mechanics who work on planes at US Airways' ( LCC) largest hub. US Airways employs nearly 7,000 union workers in Charlotte.

Nevertheless, Delta ( DAL), which operates the principal competing hub in Atlanta, has battled efforts to unionize many of its workers and has also lobbied in Washington against recent changes in the Railway Labor Act that make it easier to unionize. Subsequently, some of Delta's legislative advocates, in an effort to reverse the changes, forced the temporary shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration, another situation that typifies all that is wrong in today's Washington.

Said Wise, a South Carolina resident: "It's sad when the political leadership in a state will purposely mislead their constituents, and it's even sadder that their constituents believe the misleading facts they convey. I don't understand what the argument is with unions, with working class people, and I also don't understand why some of those working class people dislike unions so much."

Little is required to enjoy Labor Day, one of those wonderfully-positioned holidays that seems to come at just the right moment when summer is ending and schools are starting.

One small change might bring additional benefits. Could our region's political leaders at least consider the possibility that unions do not necessarily require demonization?

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

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