Union courting Volvo

The Volvo plant in Berkeley County is more than two years away from producing its first vehicle, but the head of the United Auto Workers union already has his eyes on the facility.

Swedish journalist Harald Gatu interviewed UAW President Dennis Williams this month while the union leader was attending a conference in Stockholm. Among Gatu’s questions: Are you planning to unionize the Volvo plant in South Carolina?

“Of course,” Williams responded, adding that Gov. Nikki Haley’s anti-union stance — she most recently fought attempts to unionize Boeing Co. workers in North Charleston — won’t be a deterrence.

“We believe that everybody should have the right to belong to a union regardless of the governor,” Williams said. “Regardless of several statements made by the governor, we will be in South Carolina.”

Williams said he finds it “troubling” that Volvo chose South Carolina for its first U.S. manufacturing facility.

“When you look at Volvo in the history of car manufacturing, they are very conscious of human rights and civil liberties,” Williams told Gatu, a reporter for “Dagens Arbete” — or “The Day’s Work” — magazine. “South Carolina is one of those states in the United States that has a long history of violating people’s rights. So I am surprised.”

Ultimately, Williams said, South Carolina workers will “reject officials intervening on somebody’s democratic right to belong to an organization. It is against the principles on which the United States was founded.”

South Carolina has the second-lowest percentage of unionized workers in the country at 2.2 percent, behind North Carolina’s 1.9 percent rate.

The International Association of Machinists union last month canceled plans for a union vote involving 3,175 workers at Boeing’s Dreamliner campus and other North Charleston facilities. The IAM said it is regrouping for a future vote.

The controversy is lost on Lex Kerssemakers, CEO of Volvo Cars North America, who sees unions as a non-issue.

“At the end, it’s up to the employees,” Kerssemakers told The Post and Courier during his company’s formal announcement of the new plant Thursday in Charleston.

“We are well-known for taking very good care of our employees,” Kerssemakers said. “We have good relationships with unions in Sweden and in Belgium. In the end, we live in a free world and we leave it up to the employees.”

The beginning wage for production workers at South Carolina’s automobile plants appears to be about $15 an hour, according to public records and online wage surveys.

While that’s lower than the average wage for the Charleston region, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, Haley and state Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt say the manufacturing jobs ultimately will outpace other entry-level positions.

“I believe that skilled workers get paid good wages, so I think the marketplace will manage that,” Hitt said during Thursday’s event. “Men and women come here and start building jets (at Boeing) and they get paid more over time as they build them faster and with higher quality. So good wages are something that are developed by skill. We have good wages when we start here, and they’ll get better and better along the way.”

Daimler AG, which announced plans in March to build a $500 million Sprinter vans plant at the Palmetto Commerce Park in North Charleston, agreed to pay a minimum wage of $14 an hour in exchange for state tax credits. That wage is less than the $20.93 per hour average for Charleston County, where the commerce park is located.

Volvo hasn’t specified a starting wage, but Kerssemakers has said it will be “competitive” with what similar manufacturers in the area offer.

The average wage in Berkeley County, where the $500 million Volvo plant will be built, is $20.85 an hour. However, Volvo also expects to draw workers from neighboring, more rural counties where average wages are lower.

German automaker BMW, which has operated in Greer for 20 years, agreed in 2011 to pay its workers a minimum of $15.12 per hour in exchange for tax credits related to its most recent $900 million expansion. That rate was slightly less than the 2011 per-capita income for Spartanburg County, home to the BMW plant. Online wage surveys indicate starting pay has not increased substantially since those incentives were granted.

Those who oppose giving incentives to manufacturers say the minimum wages don’t compensate for the amount of money taxpayers must spend to land a factory.

However, Mark Vitner — a senior economist at Wells Fargo Securities in Charlotte — told The Post and Courier last month that he doesn’t like to pass judgment on starting salaries at a new facility. “That’s like trying to judge a person’s success by looking at their baby pictures,” Vitner said. “Every worker there is going to become more skilled over time and their earning potential will go up. This is just the start.”

Haley said she believes “there’s been a lot of false information” about South Carolina’s low wages. She pointed to reports earlier this year showing pay for Boeing workers in North Charleston is comparable to what their counterparts earn in Washington state when cost of living, taxes and other factors are considered.

“Our companies, they don’t come here to have a good deal on workforce,” Haley said. “They come here to get a good product that’s built well.

Reach David Wren at 937-5550