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Auto union is targeting Southern assembly plants. Here’s where SC stands.


Auto union is targeting Southern assembly plants. Here’s where SC stands.

Apr 26, 2024 | 12:52 pm ET
By Jessica Holdman
Auto union is targeting Southern assembly plants. Here’s where SC stands.
People celebrate at a United Auto Workers vote watch party on April 19, 2024 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. With over 51% of workers voting yes the UAW won the right to form a union at the plant. (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

COLUMBIA — Younger, smaller assembly plants combined with long-held anti-union sentiments may make South Carolina less attractive in organized labor’s drive to unionize the South, experts say.

The United Auto Workers, in a $41 million campaign, wants to organize battery and electric vehicle plants as the auto industry makes a major shift away from gas engines. South Carolina has been particularly successful in this arena, netting half a dozen electric vehicle-related development projects over the past few years.

But even before Volkswagen autoworkers in Chattanooga voted overwhelmingly to unionize last week — the first foreign-founded auto plant in a Southern state to do so — South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster sought to stave off organized labor’s courting of workers in the least unionized state in the country. Just 2.3% of the state’s workforce, or 49,000 employees, are dues-paying union members.

About 2,500 UAW members live in South Carolina, but they’re mostly retirees. There are less than 400 working UAW members in the state.

States with unionization rates of less than 5% of their workforce:

  • 2.3% — South Carolina
  • 2.7% — North Carolina
  • 3.6% — South Dakota
  • 4.1% — Utah
  • 4.2% — Arizona
  • 4.3% — Virginia
  • 4.3% — Louisiana
  • 4.5% — Texas
  • 4.5% — Idaho
  • 4.6% — Georgia
  • 4.7% — Florida

States with unionization rates above 15%:

  • 24.1% — Hawaii
  • 20.6% — New York
  • 16.5% — Washington
  • 16.1% — New Jersey
  • 15.9% — Connecticut
  • 15.4% — California

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2023 report

But UAW hopes to capitalize after winning big wage increases in contracts with Ford, General Motors and Stellantis, the giant auto company formed in 2021 by the mergers of Chrysler, Italian Fiat and French Peugeot.

It’s a message that rang true for 73% of workers who voted in favor of a union at the Chattanooga factory.

Chattanooga’s top wage is about $35 an hour, compared to the $40 an hour on the high end of the pay scale and $30 an hour starting wage that Ford, G.M. and Stellantis now pay UAW members.

Now, all eyes are on Vance, Alabama, where in a couple of weeks, workers at a Mercedes-Benz plant will cast a union ballot. If that vote goes through with overwhelming support, experts say look for Nissan to be next.

“They want to make certain that, within the communities they organize, they get the maximum chance of winning because there’s a lot at stake,” said Marick Masters, a business professor at Wayne State University in Detroit who studies the union. “What they don’t want to have is one major setback or a string of setbacks, which would cause all workers to have pause.”

Though the union named the Palmetto State’s BMW and Volvo plants as part of its push, South Carolina’s auto industry is probably farther down the priority list.

How does UAW view SC?

The current organizing efforts are more about economies of scale, according to Masters. Smaller factories with fewer workers mean fewer dues-paying members to cover costs when it comes to bargaining for a contract.

The Mercedes-Benz assembly plant in North Charleston, where workers have made more than 350,000 large gas and electric passenger vans since 2006, is likely not large enough to be a target for the union, according to Sam Fiorani, vice president of global vehicle forecasting at the research firm AutoForecast Solutions.

That plant employs 1,600, according to Mercedes-Benz.

The same holds true for Volvo as it’s still ramping up for electric vehicle production near Ridgeville. The plant is currently hiring to bring its headcount up to 2,800 people, a number that is expected to reach 4,000 people when the facility gets to full capacity.

And Volkswagen subsidiary Scout Motors is under construction in Blythewood and still a couple years out before it even starts building electric trucks and SUVs.

“I don’t think they’ll neglect any opportunity if it comes along and they think it’s an easy win, but they’re going to have to calibrate that against what they gain,” Masters said.

Of all the foreign-owned automakers in South Carolina, BMW would be the most likely mark in the near term if enough of its workers show interest.

The massive plant near Greer — the manufacturer’s only U.S. production facility — employs some 11,000 people, twice the number of workers at Volkswagen in Tennessee and Mercedes in Alabama. It has operated in the Upstate for nearly 30 years and is in the process of adding electric vehicle lines.

The starting wage for workers at the plant is about $22 per hour, according to the hiring firm the company contracts with. The pay scale for more advanced workers is not publicly available.

Similar to VW and Mercedes, BMW is headquartered in Germany, where unions are commonplace and relations have been relatively friendly.

Campaign to organize the South

UAW began its efforts by casting a wide net across 13 automakers as part of an organizing campaign launched last fall. But it’s likely to be more calculated in where it focuses its energy. The union asked people to sign so-called authorization cards to gauge interest, giving the group an idea of where they were most likely to be successful, Masters said.

UAW has said it will file a petition to unionize once it has these commitment cards from 70% of a plant’s eligible workers. A union vote only requires a simple majority to succeed.

Both Tennessee and Alabama already have higher unionization rates than their Southeastern neighbors, at 6% and 7.5% of their workforces, respectively, according to a January report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And in Chattanooga, UAW had the benefit of previous organizing attempts. Two earlier bids over the past decade were narrowly defeated.

While last Friday’s vote was a watershed moment, Fiorani said, it was likely “a matter of time” before the group succeeded at the plant.

Continued success also will be contingent upon how quickly the union is able to secure a contract with VW in Chattanooga. Any hiccups would likely slow momentum.

In Vance, Alabama, there have been discussions in the past, but no official action. But if what occurred at Chattanooga is any indication, Martins said, UAW has a good chance convincing those who signed cards to vote yes.

If the union gets an overwhelming victory there, it’s likely to take aim at Nissan, which has major plants in both Tennessee and Mississippi.

Beyond that, at least 30% of workers have signed cards at a Hyundai plant in Alabama.

A union spokesman said the group does not have numbers for Volvo’s or BMW’s South Carolina facilities.

“Where they go is going to depend on the response they’ve gotten,” Masters said. “I don’t think they’re writing anybody off but they know the history of unionization. And I would say South Carolina is is a very inhospitable place for unions.”

Masters points to the 2017 attempt by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers to unionize Boeing in North Charleston. Employees voted 3-to-1 against representation. Leading up to the vote, then-Gov. Nikki Haley slammed the union on social media and in radio ads.

“We have a reputation internationally for being a state that doesn’t want unions, because we don’t need unions,” she said during her State of the State address. “I have every confidence that the Boeing workers in Charleston will see this play for exactly what it is and reject this union power grab.”

Most recently, an attempt by the International Brotherhood of Electric Workers to unionize a Columbia-area nuclear fuels plant was voted down by 60% of the 625 participating employees.

Wake-up call

Gov. Henry McMaster has been equally vocal, vowing to fight unions “to the gates of hell” during his own State of the State address in January.

Auto union is targeting Southern assembly plants. Here’s where SC stands.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster walks into House chambers to give his State of The State address Wednesday, Jan. 24., 2024, at the Statehouse in Columbia, S.C. Directly behind him to his left is Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-West Columbia. To his right is Rep. Jay West, R-Belton. Giving two thumbs up in the background is McMaster’s Chief of Staff Trey Walker. (File/Mary Ann Chastain/ Special to the SC Daily Gazette)

“We’re a target. We know that. They’ve said so,” the Republican governor said more recently. “All those unions that want to move to the South, they’ve destroyed a lot of the cities up North.”

He was among six Southern governors to sign a letter saying unionization would endanger jobs and future industry investment in the Palmetto State.

“We have a responsibility to our constituents to speak up when we see special interests looking to come into our state and threaten our jobs and the values we live by,” the governors wrote. “We have worked tirelessly on behalf of our constituents to bring good-paying jobs to our states.

“We want to keep good paying jobs and continue to grow the American auto manufacturing sector here,” they continued. “A successful unionization drive will stop this growth in its tracks, to the detriment of American workers.”

The letter also pointed to layoffs at UAW-represented plants.

There indeed have been jobs cuts, many tied to production pauses due to declining demand. Automakers also have sought to curb labor costs while investing billions of dollars in electric vehicles, where demand growth has been slower than early projections.

  • Stellantis — which makes Jeep and Dodge branded vehicles in the U.S. — has cut 1,000 of its so-called temporary workers. Under the contract with UAW, these workers — who were the lowest paid — saw the largest pay gain. They went from less than $16 per hour up to more than $42. 
  • Ford has offered voluntary buyouts and layoffs, but many of its laid-off workers were transferred to nearby facilities rather than going unemployed.
  • GM also is offering voluntary buyouts. Layoffs have been associated with factory changes, such as 1,300 workers in Michigan who lost their jobs when the company decided to close two plants.

Masters also expects automakers to ramp up their own opposition efforts.

“Chattanooga was a major wake up call,” Masters said. “There’s going to be a reaction and you can expect that these companies are not sitting passively by and hoping that the UAW stays away.”