Unions in the Augusta area are looking to organize workers at new companies in an environment of Savannah River Site layoffs, privatization and a national shift from manufacturing to service jobs.
Organized labor in Georgia has held its membership at about 11 percent of the workforce during the past decade while membership declined nationally, according to Richard Ray, treasurer of the Georgia AFL-CIO.
"I think every local here is trying to organize," said Dave Hanley, assistant business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers.
The Operating Engineers, workers who drive heavy construction machinery, recently won representation at two companies and have a vote coming at a third. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers have a vote coming up at the Wackenhut Savannah Inc.
In May, 200 workers at Amity Dyeing and Finishing plant in Augusta ratified their first union contract, guaranteeing them a raise and extra days off. When they joined the Union of Needle Trades Industrial & Textile Employees, they gave UNITE its first presence in Augusta.
With an aggressive campaign to organize at more companies, UNITE has been able to keep its membership from shrinking in the face of a national decline in union ranks, according to Lane Windham, southern regional communications director. A national shift from a manufacturing economy to a service one has prompted unions like UNITE to organize service workers, she said.
Corporate downsizing resulting from that economic shift highlights the need for unions that offer job referrals and training, according to Mr. Hanley.
"We saw that this was coming, so we did extensive training," said Lane Parker, business representative with the International Union of Operating Engineers' Aiken local. Employees who train after work and on weekends become more valuable to employers while not costing the companies, he said.
"Non-union contractors don't have lower prices. They just have higher profit margins," said Hugh Chrisco, an organizer for the Iron Worker's Union in the Augusta area.
As unions try to organize, they suffer from old images of crooked union bosses, violent strikes and strong-arm tactics, Mr. Chrisco said. Most younger workers don't realize that unions won the 40-hour week, paid vacations and fringe benefits, he said.
Even non-union workers gain when companies give their workers attractive benefits in an effort to preempt organizing, he said.