Mississippi has a reputation as unfriendly to unions with its right-to-work laws. But South Mississippi which has a significant union presence and some of the states largest private employers has quietly found a way to neutralize the political polarization and form a workable, sustainable business model.
There are tensions in the state, mostly in the northern area, as Mississippi has used its resistance to unions to attract big manufacturing employers. Ashley Edwards, executive director of the Hancock County Port and Harbor Commission sees an advantage.
States like Mississippi, Alabama and North Carolina have shown we are able to provide a manufacturing environment perfect for the 21st century, Edwards said. We have a new economy on the rise, built on the back of advanced materials, and automotive, because of the overall business climate we are able to provide. No doubt the fact that we are right to work is a factor that companies take into account. They also see the speed of permitting, cost of labor, cost of utilities, cost of living, access to world-class transportation infrastructure and quality of life.
In my experience, it is difficult to make sweeping generalizations about unions, Edwards said. The role of unions, he said, is very specific to the industry. For example, if you looked at automotive manufacturing, youd be hard pressed to not see that Mississippi has an insurgence in automotive production and manufacturers of automotive supplies because we dont have a history of unionized forces in heavy manufacturing. In those cases, certainly our right-to-work status is a tremendous benefit. Other industries have longstanding relationships with unions and have actually factored in cost of unionization in their business model.
Workers on demand
Jonathan Daniels, executive director of the Mississippi State Port Authority, said the port enjoys a mutually beneficial relationship with the International Longshoremans Association. Availability of card-carrying members of the ILA means when companies ask if workers are available, we can say yes. We can make sure their labor needs are met from day one. We find the union to be a very valuable resource for us.
The Gulf Coast Shipyard Group recently leased space at the port. It will bring in special expertise, but can work with terminal operators to get ILA workers for tasks like offloading trucks.
Said Daniels, We have union and non-union technicians working side by side to make the port more productive.
The port is currently working to increase employment through the Pathways to the Port Jobs program. The program is really attempting to find workers for jobs that exist. The union could be a beneficiary as we identify labor opportunities, Daniels said.
The Pathways program has developed a full range with about 50 different job descriptions from heavy equipment and crane operators, laborers, diesel mechanics, and HVAC and other specialists to operations managers for terminal operators or tenants like Dole or Chiquita.
Daniels said Robert Boone, workforce development coordinator for Pathways, is working with tenants and the ILA to determine what positions will be available, develop job descriptions, identify necessary skills and develop training programs. The port is undergoing restoration that will give it a footprint of about 295 acres, Daniels said.
Were evaluating other proposals that could further expand the types of jobs on the site. The best case scenario is in the not too distant future well be out of space.
The new construction is increasing the ports efficiency as well. Were expanding rail and bringing in equipment to make us efficient at moving from ship to shore and moving cargo offsite as quickly as possible, Daniels said.
Robert Schaffer, president of the Mississippi AFL-CIO, said he likes it when he can work with companies as well as unions. He had just met with union members and representatives of Ingalls shipbuilding.
We want to work with the company on getting these Destroyer jobs, Schaffer said. With the cuts in Washington, we want to help keep our shipbuilders from having a lull in employment. If you look at the charts, we will lose about 7,000 employees in two or three years. Sometimes workers dont know how important it is to contact their congressmen. Once someone loses a job they go somewhere else and find something and theyre not going to quit a job and come back when work picks up.
Schaffer pointed out advantages offered by trade unions.
Workers start out as apprentices and go through four or five years training before they top out as journeymen. A person can hire on as a helper and go to school three or four nights a week while earning $10 or $12 an hour. Every six months or so there is a pay raise until they top out at about $23 an hour. People with on-the-job experience can test and if they pass, they can start at a higher level.
He said a person starting a business might not need to hire skilled workers. You can call the union and tell them how many electricians, welders, pipefitters, etc. you need and for how long. All you do is write a check.
Schaffer said union workers build to code and are reliable. When buildings are built the way they should be built, the union is the cheapest way to go even though wages are higher, Schaffer said. Some people know how to get around inspectors and building codes and get away with cheap work and cheap labor. Then you start to have problems a building in four or five years. Building by code is safer.
Schaffer said the atmosphere in Mississippi can be intimidating to workers who want to join unions. He said manufacturers moving south can persuade people, Youre taking this away from the unions and Yankees. If you dont do what we tell you to, well take it somewhere else. He said he has seen proposed legislation thats trying to say unions cant have rights to assemble or picket.
Costs of turnover?
Schaffer noted that unions tend to bring stability to the workforce. When they find a decent job, people tend to stay in it, especially if it offers benefits for their families.
Gulfport City Councilman Kenneth L. Casey Sr. has been a member of the ILA working as a mechanic at the state port in Gulfport since 1979.
Over the years, ILA 1303 has a good track record at the port for quality work, being safe and getting work done on time, Casey said. Unions are beneficial bringing employment and adequate income. Casey, a mechanic, earned an associate degree in automotive before starting at the port. In talking with site selection professionals, Edwards said some industries have a history of non-union participation and are drawn to non-union areas. If they have long-term relationships with unions, its not so much of an issue, he said.
The port of Gulfport and Longshoremans union are well known as being able to provide world-class throughput of cargo. Certainly wages are higher, but companies there in many cases view unions as an asset because the bottom line requires quick, efficient movement of cargo. With the reliability and efficiency they offer, folks would be hard pressed to show that having longshoremens unions is a detriment to the Port of Gulfport, Edwards said.
But he said things are changing.
I think unions are evolving with industries in many cases. I think the stereotypical labor union of the past is not going to be a successful model for the future, he added.
We do not really have union labor in Hancock County. A lot of the industries we serve are going to be looking at right to work. In a county like Hancock, certainly in my role, I would be remiss if I did not look at things going in industry, specifically aerospace and understand how those dynamics ultimately relate to the economic future of our county.
The Boeing project in which machinist unions were able to get agreement to keep it in Washington State that is the kind of project we want to become a player in. We have the infrastructure and sites to support, not just research at Stennis, but aerospace manufacturing. I think our community college system is the front line for preparing our workforce for the jobs we are trying to attract. I think any economic developer needs to be working hand in hand with not only the community college, but four-year universities as you look at technical jobs engineering, computer science and others necessary for high tech industry.
You look at Mississippi, historically all the way back to the industrial revolution, Mississippi has been involved in textile and furniture manufacturing, but in many cases those were not highly skilled, Edwards said. The Mississippi of the future is going to be a state in which we are going to be talking about very highly skilled, technical applications in aerospace, automotive, etc. With that in mind, workforce issues are going to be at the pinnacle of strategic development efforts as we continue to evolve into a manufacturing economy.
Unions present in South Mississippi
AFGE American Federation Of Government Employees
APWU American Postal Workers Union
BBF International Brotherhood of Boilermakers
BMWE Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees
CJA The United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America
CWA Communication Workers of America
IAFF International Association of Fire Fighters
IAM International Associations of Machinists and Aerospace Workers
IBEW International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers
ILA International Longshoremens Association
IUPAT The International Union of Painters and Allied Trades
NALC National Association of Letter Carriers
NATCA National Air Traffic Controllers Association
OPEIU Office and Professional Employees International Union
PPF/UA Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Union
UGSOA United Government Security Officers of America
USW United Steel Workers