COLUMBIA — When the power goes out in South Carolina, chances are a union member repairs that line. When someone sends a letter or a package, the mail carrier or UPS driver is likely a union member.
There are 59,000 workers in unions in South Carolina, doing jobs as diverse as making paper, unloading ships, fighting fires and playing music. And a number of them are angry at the suddenly fiery comments Gov. Nikki Haley is making about organized labor.
Haley hasn’t hidden her dislike of unions during her first year in office, using Boeing’s battle with the national Labor Relations Board to boost her stance that unions don’t help businesses. But in her State of the State address last month, some union members said she made things personal.
“We’ll make the unions understand full well that they are not needed, not wanted, and not welcome in the State of South Carolina,” the governor said.
Firefighter Roger Odachowski was stunned. “If you put in the word black or gays in there, how offensive would that be?” said the 39-year-old, who is currently on disability, has been a union member for nearly two decades and has been a firefighter in Anderson for 12 years.
Union members in 2011 make up just 3.4 percent of South Carolina’s workforce, and just more than 1 percent of the state’s population as a whole. More people identified themselves as Asians in South Carolina in the 2010 Census than as union members.
But in one of her first news conferences of this year’s Legislative session, Haley blasted unions. She touted an executive order she signed denying unemployment pay for striking workers, even though state law already bans that and officials can’t remember the last time South Carolina had a strike. She also put her support behind a bill that would increase penalties for unions that break the state’s right-to-work law and require unions to submit detailed financial and membership data to the state.
“Unions thrive in the dark. Secrecy is their greatest ally, sunlight their most potent adversary,” Haley said in her State of the State address.
But the reality is quite the opposite, said 39-year-old Joe Shelley, who works in the safety department of the Capstone Paper plant in Charleston. Unions already disclose all the money they spend to the federal government and its members. Leaders are democratically elected, and contracts with employers are published.
Shelley decided to join the union his first week on the job in 2005, and he doesn’t appreciate the governor and state leaders making him feel persecuted for a choice he thinks is best for him and his family. He can’t believe people think the goals of unions are to destroy companies and damage prosperity.
“We want corporations to be successful, too. If we get them to the point where they don’t make money, we’re not going to have a job,” Shelley said.
Union members said a lot of the condemning of organized labor comes down to money. South Carolina, the second-least unionized state in the country, ranked 45th in the nation in per capita income in 2010. The five least unionized states in the country were all in the bottom-third in that statistic. A federal report issued last week found union members across the country had median weekly earnings of $938, while non-union workers were at $729.
Ryan Leveille plays percussion in the Charleston Symphony, where all but a few of the two dozen or so musicians are members of the American Federation of Musicians. He said he can never figure out why Republicans who want to reduce government spending so badly don’t like unions, which usually bargain for contracts to pay their workers enough to keep them off food stamps and secure them health insurance that keeps them off Medicaid.
“Union people are gainfully employed, and we’re less likely to be on state assistance — monetary help or health assistance or things like that — because we’ve negotiated it,” Leveille said. “We’re not relying on the state to take care of us. You think people would support that.”
South Carolina has a long and troubled history with organized labor. Seven striking textile workers were killed in Honea Path in 1934 when deputies fired on a fight between the union members and possible strikebreakers. Textile magnate Roger Milliken, beloved for his donations to charity, shut a textile mill in Darlington County and let 500 workers go in 1956 after they voted to form a union. Milliken had to pay a $5 million fine after a lengthy court battle. Textile workers in the early 20th century managed to heavily unionize Newberry County textile mills, so officials retaliated against the county, making sure no major plants came for at least the next three decades.
State leaders today defend their stance on unions because they said it is good for business. Haley said during her first year in office that prospective businesses told her South Carolina’s anti-union climate is a definite plus.
When asked for this story whether unions have a place at all in her vision of South Carolina’s future, Haley answered with a statement.
“We are fighting every day to keep the direct relationships between employers and employees strong, balanced and fair. We are a strong right to work state, which means we fight for both employees and employers’ rights. We will continue to do that,” she said.
Georgette Carr isn’t so sure Haley is fighting for her. The 55-year-old longshoreman at the Charleston port said she is saddened to see someone like Haley, the state’s first female governor, fail to respect an organization that also makes sure she is not discriminated against in a male-dominated profession.
Carr became a longshoreman in 1999 after spending years as a residential assistant at a Charleston County drug treatment facility. In that job, she made $6.94 an hour and needed help almost every month from her father to keep her lights on. Now, she has enough money to fix up her house and support her own family. She also has extra money that allows her to help others. She is very proud of the toy drive her union spearheads every Christmas.
“I’m a woman, she’s a woman,” Carr said. “She’s embarrassed me. I hope that all she needs is a little education on what unions can do. But I’m not sure she would listen.”