At 32, Michael Smith is starting a new career, training to be a unionized iron worker in Chattanooga.
After working as a mason for his uncle's construction company, Smith said he was eager for the better wages and benefits available in a union job. So the Bledsoe County worker recently began a four-year apprenticeship with Iron Workers Local Union 704.
"My momma is in the Boilermakers union, and my cousin is in the Iron Workers local, so I know the advantages of being a part of the union," Smith said during a gathering of labor supporters Saturday billed as "Putting a Face on Labor."
By the numbers
* 11.9: Percent of U.S. private sector workers who belonged to a labor union in 2010, down from 12.3 percent in 2009.
* 4.7: Percent of Tennessee workers who belonged to a union in 2010, down from 5.1 percent in 2009.
* 4: Percent of Georgia workers who belonged to a union in 2010, down from 4.6 percent in 2009.
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Smith is among a shrinking number of Tennessee and Georgia workers joining labor unions these days. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, fewer than one in 20 private-sector workers in Tennessee and Georgia belongs to a union. Union membership in the two states fell by 31,000 last year and is less than half the number of a decade ago.
Organized labor is strongest among government workers and continues to represent thousands of area construction craft workers, according to BLS figures. But most of the industrial union locals that once represented many area factory workers left town with the closing of major manufacturers such as Wheland Foundry, U.S. Pipe & Foundry, Cavalier Corp. and most of the former Combustion Engineering Corp. No new major manufacturers in the Chattanooga area have been organized in decades, despite attempts at DuPont, Magic Chef, Sonitrol Security and others.
Labor supporters, including the Hamilton County Democratic Party, rallied Saturday hoping to reverse that decline.
As the region grows with new investments from Volkswagen, Wacker Chemical, Amazon, Chattem and Alstom Power, labor leaders are eager to boost the unions' foothold.
"Organized labor helped build America's middle class, and having a union gives workers a voice in the workplace," said Jerry Lee, president of the Tennessee AFL-CIO.
Democratic Party and labor leaders sought to dispel criticisms that unionized employees hurt productivity or foster an anti-business attitude.
"We want everybody to do well and we provide a well-trained, hard-working staff to make sure our employers are profitable," said John Holliday, business manager for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 917.
Teachers Union Challenge
But with Republicans in control of the governors' offices and the legislatures in both states, labor leaders say they are fighting adverse economic and political winds.
"Construction and manufacturing employment is down, with unemployment at 10.2 percent in Georgia, so it's a challenge," said Richard Ray, president of the AFL-CIO of Georgia.
Labor last year lost one of the nation's biggest organizing efforts, at Delta Air Lines in Atlanta, after Delta and Northwest Airlines merged. The machinists union is pushing for new votes this year.
Tennessee House members are proposing bills that could weaken the state's biggest union -- the 52,000-member Tennessee Education Association.
State Reps. Debra Young Maggart, R-Hendersonville, and Glen Casada, R-College Grove, last month introduced legislation to "prohibit any local board of education from negotiating with a professional employees' organization or teachers' union" over wages or working conditions.
Rep. Casada said the Tennessee Education Association has held up needed reform and doesn't help boost most teachers' pay.
He said the average teacher salary in the 41 Tennessee school districts without collective bargaining agreements is actually higher than in the 95 with such agreements.
He said of six states that don't allow teachers to bargain with local school districts for wages, three neighboring states have higher teacher pay than Tennessee -- Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.
"The TEA has been against every reform that has come down the pike, and I just think that these type of unions are antiquated and no longer needed," Casada said.
Sharon Vandagriff, president of the Hamilton County Education Association, dismissed such claims.
She said the teachers union has worked to implement the state's "Race to the Top" program and is supporting initiatives such as the public charter school proposal for a vocational high school at Chattanooga State Community College.
"No teacher wants to work alongside another who is ineffective," she said.
But Vandagriff said professional training and better pay are needed to attract the best teachers and help them keep pace with changing instructional needs.
Jerry Winters, director of governmental affairs for TEA, said the Maggart and Casada measure to repeal the professional negotiations law that has been in place since 1978 is "a frontal assault on fundamental teacher rights."
"We believe this would really set back education in this state about 50 years, if it passed," he said. "They are couching this as education reform. But in our view it's just political payback because we didn't support certain candidates who they wanted us to support."
Lee blamed most of the fall-off in private-sector union membership on the movement offshore of manufacturing industry and cutbacks in construction.
But Chattanooga is regaining such jobs with the Volkswagen assembly plant and related suppliers.
United Auto Workers President Bob King has said the union's top priority this year is to organize one of the foreign, or so-called "transplant," carmakers in the South, though he hasn't identified a target plant.
There are more than 88,000 workers at Nissan, Honda, Toyota, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Volkswagen plants in the United States, but none of the plants is represented by the UAW.
Volkswagen says it will allow workers to decide if they want to join a union. VW has hired primarily Hamilton County workers, rather than displaced UAW workers from other plants, for production jobs at the $1 billion Chattanooga facility.
Since VW has higher-paid union workers in Germany and some of its boards include union members, Ray said he thinks the Chattanooga plant "might be [UAW's] best opportunity."
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., helped recruit Volkswagen to Chattanooga and said he advised VW officials to oppose UAW representation.
James Springfield, an international representative for Chattanooga's biggest union -- the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers -- told union supporters to "tell Bob Corker to stay out of their business."
Chris Brooks, a community organizer for the grass-roots campaign known as Chattanooga Organized for Action, said the group is ready to support such organizing efforts.
"Just let us know what you need, and we are ready to join you on the picket line," he said.