The growing number of automotive industry workers in South Carolina is attracting the attention of unions, drawing mixed reactions from manufacturers and labor analysts.
Ray Curry, president of the United Auto Workers, said the Palmetto State and other Southern states are fertile ground for organizing campaigns now that they’ve attracted dozens of vehicle manufacturers, battery factories and suppliers gearing up for the switch to electric cars in coming years.
“I can tell you we’re talking to workers in South Carolina, the entire state, and we would have a great interest in representing them in the future,” Curry told The Post and Courier in an interview this month.
He said an organizing campaign is likely this year at one of the Charleston-area’s car plants, although he wouldn’t specify which one.
The UAW is eyeing a state that’s coming off a flush year. In 2022, South Carolina attracted more than $6.5 billion worth of investments and more than 5,300 jobs from automakers, suppliers and battery companies.
The automotive industry is already a $27 billion economic powerhouse that provides jobs to 74,000 workers. Unions represent only a handful of those employees.
The UAW counts about 55,000 members working in Southern states — about 15 percent of the union’s active membership nationwide — who build Daimler trucks in North Carolina, sport-utility vehicles in Tennessee and automotive and aircraft parts in Alabama.
About 2,500 members reside in South Carolina, but most are retirees or surviving spouses. The number of working UAW members in South Carolina totals 364 statewide.
The dearth of Palmetto State members is in line with the state’s overall ranking as having the lowest percentage of union-represented workers nationwide — just 2 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
South Carolina politicians have long promoted the state’s right-to-work laws — which discourage union activity — to manufacturers like Boeing Co., which opened an airplane plant in North Charleston in part to avoid the unions that are prevalent at its West Coast factories.
Curry, who grew up near Charlotte and is a former director of the UAW region that includes the Carolinas, is undaunted.
“The South has changed in a lot of ways, and has opened up some economic opportunities in decimated areas where, before, textile (plants) existed,” he said. “The South is growing, and opportunities are growing for workers in the South. And the opportunities for workers in the South to be represented are growing.”
The nation’s automotive industry was at one time a union stronghold, but membership has skidded to 16 percent from 50 percent of workers since the first free-trade agreement between North American countries was enacted nearly 30 years ago. Membership in Southern states is just 4 percent, and Adam Hersh said that’s one reason workers at plants in the South make 15 percent less than their unionized counterparts.
“So we shouldn’t have any expectations that any new jobs created are going to automatically be good jobs,” Hersh, a senior economist with the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, said during last week’s Automotive Insights Symposium organized by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.
Karla Walter, senior director of employment policy at the Center for American Progress, takes a more optimistic view.
“We are in a moment in the U.S. where union support among the public at large is at its highest level since 1965,” Walter said during the symposium, where he cited a Gallup poll. “We are seeing workers at Starbucks and Amazon and across the public sector and at Microsoft really pushing and winning at unionization. And so I think we’ve got this moment where job quality is at the forefront of demands from workers, so we really have an opportunity to make the EV transition something that everyone cares about and sees themselves in.”
South Carolina vehicle makers are split on whether they’d support organizing within their factories.
“Volvo Cars puts people first and respects workers’ rights to choose whether or not to unionize,” said a spokeswoman for that automaker, which builds the S60 sedan and — beginning later this year — the battery powered EX90 sport-utility vehicle at its plant off Interstate 26 in Ridgeville.
“We also respect our team members’ right to remain non-union and communicate directly with the company,” she said.
Mercedes-Benz Vans, which produces the Sprinter commercial van in North Charleston, said through a spokeswoman that it’s “committed to staying neutral on the topic of labor representation.”
“The choice to join a union is up to our team members,” the spokeswoman said. “We are committed to providing our team members with a safe and professional workplace where they have an open, continuous dialogue with their colleagues and team leaders on all matters related to their job.”
In the Upstate, the UAW “has nothing of value to offer” workers at the BMW plant, said a spokeswoman for the factory that builds X-model sport-utility vehicles for the global market.
“BMW will vigorously oppose any attempt to interfere in the further development of the successful workforce at its South Carolina operations that has led to tremendous growth and accomplishments over the past 30 years,” said Nathalie Bauters, head of corporate communications for BMW Manufacturing Co.
Bauters said the German automaker has “built a unique and distinctive positive corporate culture here in the Upstate founded on a relationship between BMW and its associates, contractors and vendors which is based on mutual trust, communication and a common purpose.”
Curry of the UAW said management opposition or political hostility don’t concern him.
“We are interested in the workers and being able to talk to the workers about what their true value is, their voice in the workplace and other things, even in right-to-work states,” he said. “Kentucky is a right-to-work state, so is Tennessee and North Carolina, and we’ve gotten larger memberships in every one of those locations.”
Worker attitudes changed greatly during the pandemic, Curry said, adding “individuals all across the country are seeking to have a better understanding and a better voice in what their day-to-day lives look like.”
His North Carolina upbringing, Curry said, benefits him when talking to workers at plants in South Carolina.
“I think it gives me an advantage knowing traditional history and traditional practices,” said Curry, who earned a bachelor’s degree at UNC-Charlotte and a master’s of business administration at the University of Alabama.
Charleston, he said, was a favorite vacation spot.
“Auto manufacturing and component manufacturing was and still is a core industry in the Midwest, but that wasn’t always the case in the South,” he said. “When I was growing up, it was yarn mills and textile mills.”
The role Curry ultimately will play in trying to organize South Carolina workers will depend on his runoff election for UAW president. His opponent, Shawn Fain, an electrician at a Stallantis car plant in Indiana, is described as a populist and who’s vowed to take a more confrontational approach with management during contract negotiations. The current UAW contracts expire in September.
“This is our shot for true reform of the UAW and putting the power and control of our union back in the hands of the membership by electing leaders who will be held accountable by the membership,” Fain told Reuters.
Curry, a former assembler at the Freightliner plant in Mount Holly, N.C., took over as union president in 2021 following Rory Gamble’s retirement. He’s a former director of the UAW’s Region 8, which includes 17 mostly Southern states and Washington, D.C.
The union mailed runoff ballots on Jan. 12 and members have until Feb. 28 to return them. The vote count begins March 1.