The number of South Carolina workers who joined a labor union rose in South Carolina last year, but the Palmetto State continued to have the nation's lowest participation rate in organized labor, a new government report shows.

Of the nearly 2 million workers in South Carolina, just 2.6 percent — or roughly 52,000 people — were members of a labor union in 2017, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That compares to 1.6 percent — or 32,000 people — in 2016.

Joe Seiner, a labor law expert with the University of South Carolina, said the numbers released Friday aren't surprising and simply confirm the open hostility toward unions long expressed by the state's politicians and business community.

"It's one of the things that has made South Carolina so attractive to manufacturers," Seiner said of the state's right-to-work law, which bans forced union membership and has helped to lure companies like automakers, tire manufacturers and Boeing, which are accustomed to dealing with unions in other states.

"Those companies might not have come here if it weren't for those advantages," he said.

North Carolina remained second-lowest nationally with 3.4 percent of workers belonging to a union, although that number was up from 3 percent a year ago. Other Southern states like Arkansas, Virginia and Georgia also showed union gains.

New York again had the highest percentage of workers in unions, at 23.8 percent. Nationally, the rate was unchanged from 2016 at 10.7 percent.

South Carolina had one of its biggest union tests in years in 2017 when production workers at Boeing's operations in North Charleston overwhelmingly rejected the International Association of Machinists. Nearly three-fourths of Boeing workers voted against IAM representation in February following a years-long campaign by the union that represents many of the aerospace firm's workers in Washington state.

"It was surprising how overwhelmingly negative it was," Seiner said of the Boeing vote, adding that the IAM's defeat has undoubtedly scared off other labor unions hoping to organize South Carolina workers.

"Boeing put an exclamation point on the fact that this is an anti-union state," he said.

The Boeing vote followed a January work slowdown by International Longshoremen's Association members at the State Ports Authority after the maritime agency introduced an automated gate system that some union members see as a threat to jobs.

More recently, drivers for a Charleston trucking firm voted to join the International Brotherhood of Teamsters following complaints over job classification and wages.

We're starting a weekly newsletter about the business stories that are shaping Charleston and South Carolina. Get ahead with us - it's free.


Anti-union groups hailed Friday's report showing union membership remaining near historically low levels, calling it evidence of a disconnect between organized labor and workers.

"Union officials are losing the trust of dues-payers," said Luka Ladan, communications director for the Center for Union Facts.

But Mario Cilento, president of the New York State AFL-CIO, said organized labor "provides the best way for working people to get ahead, particularly at a time when the rights of working men and women are under attack by the fringe right in Washington."

Seiner said unions have lost some of the relevancy they once had in fighting for safer workplaces and against child labor, as federal laws have tightened since organized labor's heyday. But they are still a force in negotiating higher wages and better benefits.

"Their focus has become more narrow," he said.

Friday's report shows that, on average, union members continue to earn more than their non-union counterparts nationally. The median weekly earnings for union members was $1,041 in 2017, compared to $829 for those not represented by organized labor.

Union membership rates continue to be higher for men than women — 11.4 percent versus 10 percent — although the gap has narrowed considerably since the bureau started keeping data in 1983. And union membership continues to be higher for workers ages 45 and older than for younger workers.

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_