Signing up for unions

 In 2009-02

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Fine Print – February 2009

Signing up for unions
By G.D. Gearino

It took 16 years, but the Smithfield Packing plant near Tar Heel — where 32,000 hogs a day go in one door and countless pork chops pour out another — is now a union shop. Labor organizers fought, and eventually won, a battle against both corporate hostility and worker reluctance. But their larger triumph was over North Carolina’s carefully nurtured reputation as a state where unions tread lightly. As in much of the South, the state’s economic expansion has been fueled in part by its right-to-work law, which makes it tough for organized labor to get a toehold — thus attracting business. If you’re inclined to worry that the victory by the United Food and Commercial Workers two months ago will do damage to that reputation, don’t fret. It’s all sound and fury, signifying nothing.

That’s because if any plant deserved to be unionized, it was this one. The work is dangerous, injuries are common, and management’s tactics were notoriously heavy-handed. Any reasonable person understands there’s a time and place for labor organizing, and Smithfield Packing met both criteria. No smart corporation would hesitate to consider opening a plant in North Carolina simply because Smithfield Packing’s 4,600 Tar Heel workers preferred to live in 2008 rather than 1938. But don’t worry about this one union victory. There’s a much bigger problem on the horizon, and it’s called the Employee Free Choice Act.

It is a curious inversion of circumstance that unions and corporations have, in one significant way, switched roles. For most of its history, the labor movement has been a rebel force within both the business world and society, so much so that even after Congress established the National Labor Relations Board in 1935 some unions still didn’t trust courts to enforce its provisions, opting to occupy factories rather than exchange briefs in front of a judge. Today, the labor movement is so confident of its place in the political mainstream that it can demand from Congress the kind of protectionist legislation not even business can expect any longer. EFCA would give unions the right to bargain with an employer if a majority of its workers simply sign organizing cards. No actual vote on union representation, by secret ballot, would be required — as is now the case. Needless to say, when a labor organizer stands in front of a worker and hands him a card to sign, the power of intimidation, once primarily management’s preserve, has clearly shifted. Labor wants that power and, after spending $300 million (according to The New York Times) to help elect Barack Obama and maintain a Democratic majority in Congress, expects to get it.

If passed, EFCA would present two profound implications for North Carolina and its economy. The first and most obvious is that it likely would dilute whatever beneficial effect on economic development the state enjoys from its right-to-work statute. That law, plus the required secret ballot on union representation and residents’ long-standing suspicion of the labor movement, has helped make North Carolina the least-unionized state in the country. But attitudes about unions have changed as progressive-minded souls from other states augment the population, and if EFCA is passed and secret ballots go the way of tobacco auctions, the right-to-work law barely will be a speed bump to labor organizers.

Then again, that’s a problem every right-to-work state would have to face — so North Carolina would be no worse off than any other. Where the state is uniquely vulnerable is not in recruiting industry but the effect EFCA could have on its existing businesses. While unionization can be appropriate in some industrial venues (see: “Smithfield Packing, horrors of” above), it can become an anchor around the neck of other operations. The industries that figure most prominently in North Carolina’s future — technology, biotech, pharmaceuticals, etc. — depend heavily on creativity, adaptability, nimbleness and taking risks. None of those things mesh neatly with a unionized work force. The typical shop steward is less interested in a company’s ability to react to market conditions than in making sure workers perform only the tasks specific to their narrowly defined jobs.

Labor organizers don’t see it that way, of course. They believe that the natural order calls for workers to be organized as a balance to business owners and managers. They see no benefit to making distinctions between industries that regard workers as a low-investment commodity and those that regard them as high-value assets whose entrepreneurial energy is critically important. Union bosses believe all workers should be organized, period. EFCA is their best hope to make that happen, and if it does, we may look back at Smithfield Packing and long for the days when unionization happened mostly just to those who needed it.

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