Personal experiences shape S.C. AFL-CIO's President Erin McKee

Erin McKee, head of the AFL-CIO in South Carolina, deals with labor issues but also works to educate the public.

Erin McKee grew up in a union household in New York where her Irish-immigrant grandfather told stories of the rough-and-tumble early days of the Teamsters in Brooklyn and her father, also a union member, helped build the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge at the same time he was attending law school at night.

Years later, McKee took on her own union leadership role, speaking on behalf of a group of flight attendants trying to secure rights in the face of long overseas flights with minimal sleep or turn-around time.

That's why she has a hard time accepting some of the strong anti-union rhetoric that's coming from South Carolina's political leaders in a state where she sees a growing level of disdain for those lobbying for higher, more comfortable wages.

"I think there's a total disrespect for workers in general," said McKee, of Mount Pleasant, who a year ago was elected president of the South Carolina AFL-CIO. She added "to me, all work has dignity."

Heading into the Labor Day weekend, McKee finds herself among a small minority in South Carolina and the South in general, where union scrolls are among the lowest in the country. Just 3.7 percent of the state's workforce is affiliated with union membership, according to 2013 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. New York is the highest, at 24.4 percent.

On top of that, some of the state's top elected leaders, including Gov. Nikki Haley, and Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, all Republicans, have gone out of their way to make it known that unions should receive a cold shoulder in South Carolina when it comes to business recruitment.

"It's not something we want to see happen," Haley said after visiting an automotive conference in Greenville last February. She added "We discourage any companies that have unions from wanting to come to South Carolina because we don't want to 'taint' the water."

McKee arrived in the Lowcountry in 1996. As a single mother, she was looking to join family already living here who could watch her then 3-year-old son. She put out resumes that listed some of her pro-labor experiences: testifying in front of Congress, acting as a negotiator with the Association of Flight Attendants, and being an officer in her local.

"... And nobody called me," she said.

Eventually she was hired by the American Income Life Insurance Co., which she said was looking for someone with union experience. From there she would work helping spread the pro-worker message whenever she could, sometimes coming away dumbfounded at the level of hostility toward unions in the South.

That was especially evident during the courting of the Boeing jet plant expansion to North Charleston. Boeing officials cited strikes, and the potential of future strikes, as a reason for their decision to expand in right-to-work South Carolina. Union opponents "divide and conquer," McKee said of efforts to disparage union membership.

Back when she was a flight attendant, McKee recalls how being a voice for working people did lead to a reverse of the status quo simply by pointing out something wrong where no one else would.

"When I had only been flying a short time and we had no union, we had a layover in St. Louis and the company put us in a really bad, dirty, unsafe hotel," she recalled.

The lead flight attendant was afraid to speak up so McKee called the flight captain and asked him to come to her room. To get there he had to pass a hallway where some of the rooms had no doors and furniture had been overturned.

"When he got to my room, I asked him to look in the bathroom and around the room at how dirty it was. I then asked him if he had a daughter. He said 'yes' and I asked him if he would want his daughter to stay in a place like this."

The pilot said no and then told McKee to round up the rest of the attendants and move to another hotel.

"Even though I had no leadership position, I knew it was wrong for us to stay there and (I) had a voice for the rest of crew who was afraid to speak out," she said.

In South Carolina, McKee points to several areas where she thinks union representation could help the workforce, ranging from full-time fast-food workers making minimum wage to nomadic construction industry workers not having the security of health care or pension and retirement packages. "If you do the math, how do you survive on $7.25 (an hour)?" she said. "I have met so many people that work in fast food that have college educations. Everyone should have good wages because then they can go and spend it," she said.

A Democrat-sponsored effort to raise the state's minimum wage to at least $10 an hour went nowhere in the Legislature last session.

For the future, McKee is going to be promoting union education and what she sees as the advantages of union representation, hoping to make an impact this election year.

"If we don't have unions, who protects us?" she said.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.