In the traditionally nonunion South, talk of organized labor might conjure up images of Jimmy Hoffa leading mobs of striking Teamsters.
Though union employees still strike and there will always be feuds between workers and employers, the tone of Columbia County labor unions is one of cooperation, said Wayne "Rock" Habersham, president of the International Machinists Union 2789 at the John Deere plants in Grovetown.
"We've come a long way from that," said Habersham, an assembly line zone leader. "The union and John Deere have what we consider a partnership. It is not just a union and management. It is a partnership. We try to work out every issue."
The plant has about 280 employees, and between 100 and 125 of them are union members, Habersham said.
"That's high," Habersham said. "To have that high a number of workers in a right-to-work state is a good thing, something we pride ourselves on."
In a "right-to-work" state such as Georgia, employees are not required to join unions but can enjoy the advantages of their influence, including higher wages, better working conditions, expanded benefits and laws passed to protect other rights.
Roughly 12 percent of laborers nationwide are union members. That is considerably less than the 37 percent recorded in the 1950s and 1960s, said Charlie Key, assistant regional director of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations. The AFL-CIO represents 56 national and international labor unions, including the IAM.
It's hard to know how many union workers there are in Columbia County, Key said.
"That is a tricky thing. We have no way of really knowing where folks work. Folks are so mobile nowadays."
He said the AFL-CIO has 2,160 recorded union members in Columbia County. Union members are recorded based on their place of residence, not place of employment, Key said. Many, he said, likely travel to Richmond County or other areas to work and many living outside the county likely travel to Columbia County jobs.
The 2,160 recorded union members do not include laborers, service employees, textile, manufacturing, laundry, airport, food service and others whose unions are affiliated with Change To Win, which spun off from the AFL-CIO in 2005, or are not affiliated with an organizing body at all, Key said.
Columbia County boasts a civilian labor force of nearly 56,000, according to state Department of Labor figures compiled in June.
"(Columbia County) has a lot of union members from all the building and construction trades," Key said, adding that those members could be general laborers or skilled workers in areas such as sheet metal, plumbing, painting, roofing, carpentry and pipe-fitting.
Labor unions don't seem to be a hot topic among officials of businesses and industries that are considering locating in the county, said Troy Post, executive director of the Development Authority of Columbia County.
"Some companies might ask about the presence of union membership in the area, and some don't raise it at all," he said. "It used to be much more of a topic."
Maybe companies are doing their own research, he said. But labor union questions from prospective businesses are so rare that the authority no longer tracks labor union data, Post said.
Georgia Iron Works Inc. in Grovetown employs union workers. Workers at Club Car, an Evans subsidiary of Ingersoll Rand aren't unionized.
Columbia County government employees have not formed any labor unions, said Marcia Lowry, human resources director, but some Columbia County bus drivers have joined a union.
However, government em-ployees are limited because they can organize but not bargain for contracts or strike, Key said.
Habersham said the John Deere union engaged in contract negotiations in 2008.
"When the economy was down, the workers didn't lose anything," Habersham said, adding that the Grovetown facility hasn't laid off a permanent worker in its 19-year existence.
In the hard times of 2009, Habersham credits that working relationship between the union and management with preventing the hard times from hitting employees too hard. He and the plant manager worked out a schedule where employees got a few extra "vacation" days instead of layoffs.
What is good for the company is good for the employees and vice versa, Habersham said.
"It is a win-win situation," he said, adding that a thriving company provides stable jobs and happy, stable employees provide high productivity.
Key agrees that cooperation can make both the employees and the company stronger.
"I really and truly believe that if it is genuine cooperation based on mutual respect, you can't beat it," he said.
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.