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JCI workers in S.C. beat the odds

Despite viscious anti-union pressure from management

Management couldn’t thwart JCI battery plant workers’ determination to have a real say in their future with UAW representation.
Management couldn’t thwart JCI battery plant workers’ determination to have a real say in their future with UAW representation.

Workers who want a union at the Johnson Controls Inc. battery plant in Florence, S.C., knew they were up against some tough challenges.

A struggling economy makes workers ever more fearful of management. Organizing is never easy in the South, where some business people think it’s their God-given right to viciously fight their employees’ First Amendment rights to free speech and free association with a union.

So when workers began to organize the plant, management responded predictably, hauling workers in for compulsory one-on-one meetings to beat down pro-union sentiment. After the drive began, they awarded workers $50 for good ideas on how to better run the plant. And of course, right before the election, anti-union Chamber of Commerce types and the pro-business editorial board at the local newspaper did their best to put a negative spin on joining a union.

And yet they still couldn’t beat down the production, maintenance and quality workers’ desire to have a real say in their future. Workers voted 76-71 in a National Labor Relations Board election on Aug. 18 for UAW representation. Workers there join other UAW-represented workers at JCI battery plants in Holland, Ohio; Middletown, Del., and Fort Wayne, Ind.

Forklift driver Mildred Hiers was one of the few workers management didn’t haul in for one-on-one brow beatings. Maybe it’s because it would have been useless.

“I wear my union shirt every day,” Hiers said after the vote. “Not a day went by that I didn’t have something union on.”

Hiers, who has been at the plant since it opened in February 2007, said the anti-union campaign scared away some workers who would have voted for the union. She’s now keeping the lines of communication open between the workers who voted no and those who supported the drive. Communication, she added, is one of management’s major problems, and having a union is a way to make sure that communication happens and isn’t one-sided.

“You have to hand it to the courageous workers at the Johnson Controls plant in Florence,” said Gary Casteel, director of UAW Region 8, which includes South Carolina. “They bravely withstood intimidation from plant management and from outsiders to make their own informed decision about joining a union.”

“We hope Johnson Controls has heard the collective voices of their workforce and will move to immediately recognize the union and bargain fairly on a first contract,” said UAW Vice President Cindy Estrada, who directs the union’s Competitive Shop/Independents, Parts and Suppliers (CS/IPS) Department. “We’re ready to create a partnership with management that benefits everyone for years to come.”

Vince Piscopo