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Scott Colom: Omnova sale bad sign for unions


Scott Colom



Trying to find a union in Mississippi is a lot like trying to find an animal on the endangered species list; the more time passes the harder they are to locate. And, with the recent news that Omnova Solutions Inc. sold its manufacturing operations and plans to cease manufacturing at its Columbus plant, unions may have inadvertently made it more difficult to remove themselves from the endangered list.  


The death of this local union started when union workers initiated a strike over a new contract they said would have taken away employment incentives, seniority and shift rights. The company argued the changes were necessary for the plant to stay competitive. It responded to the strike by hiring replacement workers who then voted to petition the National Labor Relations Board to decertify the union. The union challenged this vote and the matter was pending before the NLRB. The sale, however, effectively ends the dispute. Without jobs, there can be no union. 


Unions aren't facing extinction in Mississippi alone, though. The decline in private sector unionization is a national phenomenon. Since the end of World War II, private sector unionization has dropped from nearly 25% to just over 7% today - a 67% decrease.  


Union supporters argue this decrease has contributed to the current high levels of income inequality. Without being able to collective bargain for wages, these supporters say salaries for workers have stagnated over the last 30 years, while the salaries of top management have soared. They point to statistics that show median household income, adjusted for inflation, only grew around 16% from 1973 to 2005. Whereas, the average CEO for a fortune 500 company currently makes more than $11 million a year, 367 times more than the pay of the average worker.  


Critics say unions stifle economic growth. They point to the decline of the industrial base in the Midwest, especially in Detroit and growth of manufacturing in "right to work" states like Mississippi as evidence that unions eventually cause the transfer or loss of jobs.  


They blame income inequality on globalization and a failing public school system. They say access to lower labor costs in developing countries means employees compete in a much larger labor market and that schools have not adequately prepared students for the high-tech jobs that can't be easily outsourced.  


Interestingly, the decline of unionization in the Midwest means unions will likely have to take this debate to the South. In the past, right-to-work laws, which ensure workers have the right to choose whether to join a union, have discouraged efforts at unionization. Yet, with every announcement of a new industrial plant in the South, unions will be forced to at least attempt unionization in right-to-work states if they want to avoid extinction. 


Because of the work of the LINK and others, Lowndes county has been blessed to become the home of several large industries over the last few years. Tax assessor Greg Andrews expects the county's assessed value to reach a billion by next year and for Lowndes county to have the largest industrial base in the state. This indicates the county may also become a target for union drives.  


If so, it'll be interesting to observe the long-term effects of the Omnova strike and subsequent sale, if any. Even if organizers can appeal to worker outrage about stagnant wages, executive pay, or workplace conditions, they may also have to confront the ghosts of the Omnova strike. Current workers at other plants, along with family members and friends, may consider the closing of the Omnova plant a warning about the dangers of unions and be hesitant to join one in the future. It'll be hard to convince workers joining a union is in their best interests, if they don't think the union can protect them from losing their job.


Scott Colom is a local attorney.


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