Late last month, about 150 textile workers took to the streets of Greensboro chanting, ``We are the union - the mighty, mighty union!'
The protesters were members of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union from three local Cone Mills plants. They had taken to the streets not to press for better wages or working conditions but for changes in the company's employee stock ownership plan.Their words echoed off the walls of downtown banks, brokerage houses and insurance firms with an odd resonance. Norma Rae aside, North Carolina has consistently been one of the less organized states in the country, with union membership hovering at about six percent of the work force versus 17 percent nationally. The state also ranks near the bottom in wages.
The low rate of organization has garnered the state both high and low marks for economic growth in various studies. When Alexander Grant and Co. asked a national sample of corporate executives to rank states' business climates, North Carolina was ranked eighth out of 50, with low wages and lack of unionization listed as chief attractions.
But in 1987, the Corporation for Enterprise Development, a Washington-based research group partially funded by several unions, gave the state poor marks, saying its lack of unionization undermined economic strength and employee productivity. Gov. Jim Martin denounced the study for its union ties and responded by saying those low marks were fine since they reinforced the state's non-union orientation.
Conflict over United\
Today there is still a willingness on many North Carolina fronts to turn away well-paying jobs if union strings are attached.
For example, some local industry groups are lobbying to blunt Greensboro's bid for a $500 million United Airlines maintenance hanger. The fear is that the facility would disrupt the labor economy's equilibrium and ruin the region's draw as a low-wage, non-union area.
The operation would introduce a 6,000-person union shop to the Triad, with workers earning an average of $40,000. Because of federal regulations governing airline labor, the United workers would not be cov-(Continued from front page) ered by North Carolina's right-to-work laws. Those laws require that workers in union shops be allowed to choose whether to join the union, but those workers who choose not to join are still guaranteed benefits of the union's contract.
``Obviously we're not normally involved in promoting unions and usually we try to recruit nonunion, open shops,' said Tom Osborne, president of the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce. ``But when you say you don't want unions you cut yourself off from getting airlines such as United. The size of the project is so big, there's no doubt it would boost the local economy.'
The bid to land the facility and resulting opposition are focusing new light on the state of labor unions in the Triad and state. And more than ever, the lines are clearly drawn between ``traditionalists' and ``modernizers' according to Paul Luebke, a sociology professor and a Democratic member of the North Carolina Legislature from Durham.
The traditionalists Luebke describes are of the old guard and aren't enticed by potential economic benefits if unions are involved. Modernizers often are more neutral on the issue of worker organization, but support growth through creation of new jobs, regardless whether they're union jobs.
``In North Carolina, unions have been viewed by the power structure as illegitimate,' said Luebke, who teaches sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and is author of the book ``Tar Heel Politics.'
``They are viewed as a disability here while in other parts of the country they are accepted as part of the community,' Luebke said. ``They host bake sales and sponsor parades.'
Enemies become allies\
That acceptance has spread, in some cases, to the corporate offices, as executives have observed the debilitating effects of company-worker standoffs in other firms.
Eastern Chairman Frank Lorenzo was praised by some managers for his aggressiveness in breaking labor contracts that were considered too costly. But that's what caused the crippling 1989 machinists' strike that eventually landed the airline in bankruptcy court.
``Lorenzo set out to destroy the union but wound up destroying the company,' said R.V. Durham, chief negotiator for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and president of Local 391 in Kernersville.
Now, unions and management are increasingly working together to save financially troubled companies, saving jobs in the process.
Bruce Raynor, Southern director of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, said he's seen companies spend millions to keep out a union, then almost collapse from the expense. But he said more and more managers are trying to work with unions instead of against them.
``A company in South Carolina that we had been having problems with for nine years said they wanted to work with us a few months ago,' Raynor said. ``We were skeptical at first but we knew they had severe financial problems and faced Chapter 11.
``But we did work together and, as a result, productivity is up,' Raynor said. ``Now it looks like the company will make it.'
Durham, currently negotiating with the financially troubled Jones Trucking line in Arkansas, said he is happy to work with companies and help them escape financial straits as long as the workers don't bear the brunt of cutbacks.
``Companies need to level with workers about why they can't meet demands,' Durham said. ``Most people don't expect miracles, but they do want honesty.'
A decade of tough times\
Part of that willingness to cooperate comes after a decade of tough times for American unions. Organized labor came out of the '80s beleaguered and battle-weary. Ten years ago, unions represented almost one of four American workers; now, it's barely one in six. Membership in North Carolina unions affiliated with AFL-CIO totals 120,000 - a 17 percent drop since 1987.
Ronald Reagan set the tone in 1981, when he fired striking air traffic controllers.
``It became socially acceptable to bust unions,' Raynor said.
Deregulation also took its toll. In the trucking industry, many firms were run off the road by stiff competition that forced unionized lines to compete with low-wage non-union truckers. The result: the Teamsters lost 130,00 members.
The slide lasted through 1989, when unions seemed to turn the tide.
In what organizers consider a turning point, the United Mine Workers won their fight to retain certain medical benefits in a bitter strike against the Pittston Coal Mining Co. in Virginia and West Virginia. Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole intervened in the situation, something previous Republican administrations had refused to do with the equally bitter Eastern Airlines strike and earlier disputes.
After a 20 percent plunge in national membership since 1979, union rolls are holding steady. Union leaders hope to stage a comeback in the '90s but remain cautious given the nation's economic slump. There is considerable disagreement on how downturns affect the outlook for organized labor.
Debra Shapiro, a business professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said, ``There's a possibility that in times when people see layoffs and pay cuts, they'll join together. That means union membership could increase.'
On the other hand, Arne Kalleberg, chairman of the sociology department at the UNC-Chapel Hill, believes that bad times are worse for union organizing.
``As more and more companies go out of business, then more and more pressures will be put on unions,' Kalleberg said. ``It's the absolute worst time.'
Unless the slump is much deeper than most economists predict, the '90s could bring more good news than bad for unions. They could benefit from demographic shifts that could bring severe labor shortages in some industries.
Researchers have found that women and minorities tend to support unions more readily than do white males, so an influx of those groups could spur union growth. A 1984 AFL-CIO study found that unions won 50 percent of campaigns in which women comprised the majority of workers versus only 40 percent in which men were the majority.
``Those groups are less powerful, less well-off,' Luebke said. ``They are more likely to believe unions will help them because they need more help.'
The union metamorphosis\
Union leaders believe that means different types of help as well, to meet the needs of a more diverse work force. Unions are moving beyond the simple wage and working conditions negotiations and into the world of stock plans, day care benefits and medical insurance co-payments.
The Clothing and Textile Union's campaign against the Cone Mills stock plan, which was started while Cone fended off a hostile takeover by Western Pacific Industries in 1984, marks a change from its past emphasis on wage negotiations.
``It's a lot more complex today,' Durham said. ``It used to be that we'd sit down and talk about the wage increase then give a nickel or dime to maintain insurance benefits. Now we start by figuring out what we need in insurance and then see what's left.'
Durham, whose union represents more than 8,000 local workers at companies including United Parcel Service, Roadway Trucking and Miller Brewing Co., said medical benefits have become more important because of the dramatic rise in medical costs. He said a worker who earns $15 an hour probably costs his employer $5 more per hour in insurance benefits.
Raynor said union leaders have also become well-versed in corporate law and finance.
``You don't go to the table asking for a $1 raise,' said Raynor, whose union has about 7,000 members at Cone Mills and Fieldcrest Cannon. ``Today, there's a lot more to it than that.'
There's also more to organization tactics.
Three Republican presidential victories have left the National Labor Relations Board, the government entity that rules on labor disputes, firmly in conservative hands. Union leaders say it's become so hard to win disputed elections through the NLRB that they have opted to circumvent it and instead turn to public appeals and shareholders' resolutions.
``Ten years ago we didn't know anything about (shareholder's resolutions), but now we're using them more and more,' Raynor said.
A public relations move\
Unions are also polishing their public relations skills and taking their complaints to the public. The AFL-CIO recently sponsored a national three-day seminar titled ``TV: The Cool Medium.' A program was designed to help union leaders learn ``how to control an interview, recognize deadly questions and avoid 'no comment.' '
Part of the textile union's recent protest included taking their appeals to top bank executives who assisted with Cone's buyout. As television cameras rolled, union leaders asked the executives for help in resolving their dispute with Cone management. That wasn't the first time the union had brought its ESOP complaints to the public's attention. Last summer, the union organized a rally and brought in Jesse Jackson, who focused his speech on the stock plan.
Even given that metamorphosis, Durham tries to be realistic about growth.
``In the '90s the pendulum is swinging,' he said. ``There's going to be opportunities for organizing. You can only push people down so far then things begin to go the other way.'
In the '80s, the textile and clothing workers union lost major elections at Cannon Mills in Concord and Tultex in Martinsville, Va., about 60 miles north of Greensboro.