FLORENCE -- A majority of employees at the Johnson Controls plant in Florence successfully petitioned to remove union representation from the plant.
Management at the battery plant received a petition from employees on April 21 to withdraw union representation, Jennifer Mattes, the director of global communications-Johnson Controls Power Solutions, said in a statement.
“Based upon the petition received from the employees, the company has withdrawn recognition of the union effective May 8, 2015,” Mattes said in the statement. “Johnson Controls respects the decision of the Florence employees and looks forward to working directly with our employees going forward.”
The vote comes nearly five years after employees voted 76 to 71 in a National Labor Relations Board election in August 2010 to form the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW) Local 3066.
Since then, Florence has been stigmatized, despite significant economic development. Gov. Nikki Haley touched on that stigma after a speech in March.
“The issue that has hurt the Pee Dee in the past that kind of still lingers that we’re trying to get rid of is that things were unionized here not too long ago,” Haley said. “So manufacturers are fearful of this area. We have tried to tell them that that is not the label we want the Pee Dee to have, and we don’t think it’s a realistic situation.”
For Joe W. King, executive director of the Florence County Economic Development Partnership, the vote is a game changer.
“I think it’s good news for Florence County, for the Pee Dee and for the state,” King said. “In the past, we have had several projects that Florence could have received a look, but the site consultants, the first thing they asked, ‘Do you have UAW facility or Teamsters facility in your county? If you do, we will not look, and we will not put anything within a 40-mile radius of a UAW facility.’”
King said the move positions Florence County for future projects.
“We will notify those site consultants today about the decertification vote at Johnson Controls,” King said. “This is the third go-round. They had a decertification vote and lost, and this time local people were involved, and that made a big difference.”
A vote to decertify the union failed in November 2011.
UAW members from around the state and region stood across from the plant at 3046 Bill Crisp Drive this week with signs to support union members at the plant. One sign read “Holiday Inn Express” referring to the hotel down the street where union officials were located to speak with employees.
The UAW did not comment.
Several community leaders spoke out against the organization of the plant in 2010, including Dr. Charles Gould, former chairman of the Economic Development Partnership board and former president of Florence Darlington-Technical College.
“There are, however, potential headwinds that can derail economic development and dampen the hopes of Florence County workers for brighter futures,” Gould wrote in the August. 15, 2010, edition of the Morning News. “The recent organizing activity at Johnson Controls comes at a time when this region and the state can ill afford to take a step back in our efforts to rebuild our economy.”
The union was a deterrent for some industries, but Michael Carrouth, a Columbia-based labor lawyer with national clients, said that unions still didn’t take root.
“It should have never been held against the area or the people from an economic development standpoint,” Carrouth said. “It really was an outlier. It never was going to be some launching point, especially for the UAW, which has lost over a million members over the last decade.”
Carrouth was not involved in the situation, but based on previous events and his experience he believes things were heated.
“I’m sure it got pretty intense in there once the company notified the union that they were going to withdraw recognition when the contract expired,” Carrouth said. “The union at that point is fighting for its life and it’s not going to accept easily the voice of the majority. It’s going to fight to maintain its relevance and position.”
The current manager, Rick Thompson, deferred to Mattes, who did not comment.
King didn’t provide many details around the decertification, other than that this time more local people were involved in the effort.
Following a called Florence County Council meeting Thursday, Council Vice Chairman James Schofield said he was not aware of the situation at Johnson Controls, but said the move would have a positive effect.
“It does discourage some industries from locating. I think we lost a tire plant because of it,” Schofield said. “Industries are going to go where they want to go. Anything that’s an impediment to industry coming and creating jobs is a problem for me because that’s tax base.”