Besides barring employers from denying a job to anyone for not joining a union, more importantly, RTW exempts unionized companies from having to deduct dues from workers’ paychecks.
Many will be surprised to know that Mississippi is one of only six states which have installed RTW in their constitution. (The other 17 RTW states do it by statute.) In 1960 Ross Barnett became governor and sought to offset his anti-corporate image by launching a big pitch for measures to make Mississippi business friendly. Meantime, however, he found quicker popularity as an arch-segregationist.
Barnett’s pro-business program included RTW and also elimination of the state income tax. Lawmakers would only cut the 6 percent income top rate in half, though many legislators warned it would virtually drain the state’s thin revenue stream. Barnett left office bragging that the 3 percent top income rate would produce an industrial miracle. Instead, the state remained last. Within four years, most of the income tax cut had to be restored as well as the sales tax hiked.
Fast forward to Haley Barbour’s eight years playing the jobs-jobs-jobs theme (and Gov. Phil Bryant keeping the melody going, boasting his 2012 legislative record was most “business friendly” in history). Yet, we saw an Associated Press report last week that new federal government figures showed Mississippi was one of just six states which slid back into recession and whose employment was still 71,000 jobs below 2008.
The Nissan unionization attempt has broader significance in this state’s economic history than many realize because it could become a landmark in the state’s economy.
Unions, once a potent segment of the state’s population until their sharp decline began in the 1960s, have lost ground partly due to the state’s inherent independence, but also an increasingly strong corporate influence in state government policy.
When Gov. Ronnie Musgrove landed Nissan in 2002 – after years of the state trying to recruit an auto plant – it brought almost 6,000 new jobs, the biggest single injection of good-paying jobs since Pascagoula’s 1980s shipbuilding boom. However, to get Nissan, Mississippi virtually “gave away the store” issuing some $400 million in bonds. Although state industry-hunters never publicly admit it, they have always used Mississippi’s anti-unionism (and RTW constitutional protection) as a selling point to lure industries such as Nissan (and now Toyota) to locate here.
Studies based on Department of Labor figures show union members earn better wages and have better health benefits than non-union workers. In 2010, median weekly earnings of union members were $917 as compared to $717 for non-union workers.
Higher wages and health care are, of course, what workers in this state badly need. So the Nissan unionization case presents this state with a dilemma: Would an organized labor breakthrough be a good thing or a bad thing for Mississippi? We’ll see how this all plays out.
Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at firstname.lastname@example.org.