June 17, 1991, will live with Wendell Gilliard for the rest of his life.
That’s the day, just before noon, when an explosion at the Albright & Wilson chemical plant in the Charleston Neck area killed nine people and injured 30 more in one of the city’s worst industrial disasters.
“That’s the day I lost my best friend,” said Gilliard, who worked at the plant for 28 years, all as a member of the United Steelworkers union. Gilliard, now a Democratic legislator in the S.C. House of Representatives, was president of the local union at that time. He also led union organizing campaigns in South Carolina and other states before his political career.
It was in the aftermath of that tragedy that Gilliard said he learned the most about how positive the relationship between a union and employer can be.
“If anything is to be seen as an example of a company and union working hand in hand, knowing that we could coexist, this is the best example,” he said. “And because of the cooperation between the company and union, that plant still stands today.”
The chemical plant now is known as Solvay Charleston.
Gilliard said he had planned to stay out of the debate over whether workers at Boeing Co.’s North Charleston production facilities should vote April 22 to be represented by the International Association of Machinists union. But Gov. Nikki Haley’s anti-union speeches and an April 2 news conference in which North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey and Charleston County Council Chairman Elliott Summey criticized the IAM drew him in.
“I wanted to stay silent as a public official, but every time I turn on my TV and especially after yesterday’s news conference, I felt like I was being slighted,” Gilliard said April 4. “It’s like if I were a veteran and somebody was saying something bad about veterans. I am union, and I would never trade that philosophy and the things I learned for anything in the world. That’s why I had to take my gloves off.”
Gilliard took time earlier this month to speak with The Post and Courier about the union campaign at Boeing, his experiences as a union organizer and his feeling about Haley’s anti-union stance.
Q: You were with the steelworkers union for 28 years. What did you learn about unions from that time?
A: It taught me how to be humble. It taught me how to care for others and how important the next person is on that assembly line or office or wherever the case may be. Everybody’s important on the job and everybody should be treated with dignity and respect. That’s the philosophy of being in a union.
Q: What has your experience been as a union member working with management?
A: Very positive. Always positive.
Q: Why do you think Boeing management is resistant to the International Association of Machinists getting a foothold at the North Charleston plant?
A: That’s not in their heart, it’s just rhetoric. One thing you learn about union organizing is that when you bring a union into a company, the dust settles. Everybody gets along. You’re just at that phase now where you have this hype because companies like Boeing, and I’m talking from experience, go out and hire big-time consultant groups that come in and take the supervisors to classes literally overnight and their attitudes change. They are being taught the rhetoric.
That happened everywhere that we went. The last place I remember was in Milledgville, Georgia, where Rheem, which makes air conditioners, had over 2,000 employees. The workers were looking for dignity and respect, better wages and safer conditions. The National Labor Relations Board conducted an election and, believe me, the next day was nothing but joy from both sides. People who had been talking the rhetoric were now congratulating the workers and saying, “Let’s sit down to the table and let’s respect each other.” That’s what you’ll see here.
Q: Boeing has been warning its employees about what it calls the union’s broken promises and how a strike could be financially devastating for them. How valid are those warnings?
A: It’s a scare tactic. We call it the big bogeyman. When workers sit down and talk to union organizers and we show them the comparison of how people are being treated in other plants, how they’re making twice as much money, how they’re getting better retirement, how they feel safer on the job, then that whole attitude changes.
When you talk anti-union, you have to look at the messenger. Because if you know anything about unions, they are veterans. Unions are teachers. They’re law officers.
Q: Why do you think Gov. Haley and other politicians, like the Summeys, have taken such anti-union stances?
A: It’s only a movement you see here in South Carolina. If you look at the other Southern states, they’re focusing on jobs and education, domestic violence, gun crimes. If the governor would just stand up and be the leader that she could be, she’d say: “Look, we welcome Boeing, we gave them $900 million in tax incentives, but as far as the union, that’s a choice for employees and it’s a private business matter.” Oh, what a message that would be. And what progress we could make on the real issues facing this state. If you keep spitting rhetoric and trying to instill fear in people with common sense, somewhere along the line, there’s going to be a backlash.
I call the governor “Sarah Palin Part II.” She doesn’t know what she’s talking about when it comes to unions. She doesn’t even do her homework. It’s like someone just pushes a button and she’s like a robot.
I challenge the workers to do the research themselves. Don’t take somebody else’s word for it. The information is out there. If I’m on an assembly line and I’m making 18-something an hour and somebody in Seattle is making $15 an hour more, something’s not right with that picture. We’re doing the same work, if not more, but they’re getting paid more and they have a union. So nobody can be in a position to say unions are bad. The union has made Boeing a multibillion dollar company.
Q: Could the union’s presence at Boeing hurt South Carolina’s chance of landing future manufacturers?
A: It’s not going to hurt industry at all. You have to understand that unions are already here. You’re talking Teamsters, electricians, United Steelworkers, longshoremen. Even the halls where I sit in the State House were painted by union people. The mail the governor gets comes from the postal worker’s union. The clothes she wears, the furniture she sits on, the food that she eats — 95 percent chance that they all came through longshoremen at the port. We have to watch how we point fingers.
Q: How do you think the vote is going to play out on April 22?
A: I think it’s going to be close. But I think during the process, people are learning things along the way. Whether you are anti-union or for the union, they’re learning things along the way. And that’s why I like having friends on both sides. The union philosophy is equal pay for equal work. If you treat people with dignity and respect on the job, you won’t need a union. If you paid livable wages, you wouldn’t need a union.
Reach David Wren at 937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_