The South seems to be rising on the wings of low-manufacturing wages. And that Southern influence is spreading.
The Seattle area has a strong history of labor activism, but that’s not the case everywhere in the country. Different values prevail in places like South Carolina, where Boeing workers voted last week not to join a union.
The regional difference is in part a matter of culture and the history it rests upon. It shouldn’t be surprising that the least union-friendly states are in the South, where a long history of free labor has to affect people’s views not just of unions, but of labor in general.
And while certain attitudes toward labor tend to be strongest in the South and among Republicans, in recent decades the Southern influence has spread elsewhere.
Economic inequality is high in the United States, but it doesn’t have to be that way, and it wouldn’t be if our attitudes, laws and business practices placed a higher value on the people who work to produce the profits that go to the top.
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Companies can make good profits while paying workers well.
Germany has strong unions, and also German factories have work councils, where managers and workers come together to solve problems outside of union action or management fiat. And the Germans are profitable.
A few years ago the business magazine Forbes ran an article with this headline: “How Germany Builds Twice as Many Cars as the U.S. While Paying Its Workers Twice as Much.” It was based on a more detailed piece from remappingdebate.org.
And here’s a headline from the British newspaper The Guardian: “Do American autoworkers have an inferiority complex?” It’s from a piece on automobile plants in the South, and it was written three years ago after workers at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, voted to reject unionization. The article said the same company pays its German workers more than three times what it pays autoworkers in America.
Now lots of foreign-car manufacturers have plants in the South. They get to say their vehicles are made in America, which helps with sales. They get tax breaks and other incentives and, of course, a cheaper labor force.
Other kinds of manufacturers are also attracted by the hospitality the South shows to businesses, and Boeing is one of them.
The company fought hard to keep the union out of its plant in South Carolina, and it had support from politicians in the state.
President Donald Trump visited the Boeing plant last Friday, two days after the vote, praised the past and present governors for their support of business, and said he was there because he is strongly focused on keeping jobs in America and bringing back manufacturing jobs from elsewhere.
Not so many of those jobs will be going to the Rust Belt, where so many people voted for Trump hoping to see manufacturing move back. It’s great that workers in the South are getting jobs they wouldn’t have had access to a generation ago, but it’s not so good for people elsewhere, who used to work in factories for better wages.
Here’s another headline for you: “How the American South Drives the Low-Wage Economy,” which is from “The American Prospect,” a magazine with a liberal take on the news. The article talks about the impact of Southern norms on wages in the rest of the country.
Boeing makes the 787 Dreamliner in the North Charleston, South Carolina, plant, and it also makes the plane in its plant in Everett, where there is a union and wages are higher.
Unions are not perfect, but they offered a way for workers to have some power of their own in their dealings with the companies they work for. I say that in the past tense because union representation has been shrinking for 50 years. South Carolina has the lowest rate in the country, 2 percent.
Opening Southern plants allows Boeing to pay lower wages and avoid having to deal with a union. It’s not evil, it’s just business. Corporations need to make a profit, but workers deserve a little respect for their contribution to that profit. That respect is more common in some cultures than others, and I worry that respect for workers in this country may keep shrinking, even among workers themselves.