"I get 'em through here quite often," big William (Buddy) Griffin said in that down-home, "hey, fella" way that had made him this city's leading civic booster. "Those Yankee firms coming down the pike. They're trying to get away from the unions."
And for years, this region has been a haven for them. Southern communities, with tough right-to-work laws and unfriendly welcoming committees, have made no secret that they don't cotton to unionization.
So what General Motors Corp. has just done to this southern river town and about a dozen others didn't seem quite neighborly to some folks here. The auto maker, which had been courted by Tuscaloosa to build a new carburetor plant here partly on the understanding - or at least the hope among some - it would resist organizing attempts as it has at other southern plants, simply invited the union in.
Under a special arrangement with the United Auto Workers, GM agreed last month to recognize the UAW as bargaining agent in four new plants - one here, another in Albany, Ga., and two up north in Michigan. At 11 other plants in the South, the corporation agreed to give preferential consideration in hiring to union workers. In turn, the UAW promised to stop accusing GM of pursuing a "southern strategy" aimed at keeping new plants in the South nonunion.
For Tuscaloosa, the agreement did not mean the coming of unionism. That happened long ago. The town has lived with the rubber worked at the local Goodrich plant for 30 years. Its textile, foundry and paper mill operators are also organized.
But the UAW, with the muscle and mindset born of years of battling a national corporate giant, is a stronger, more aggressive labor power than Tuscaloosa has known. Tuscaloosa today is a place of aging industry seeking new business and trying to present a picture to the outside world of peaceful college town.
How will the tough union and the traditional southern town get along? The question has already aroused concern.
"The rubber and foundry workers are unions that keep to themselves," said Griffin, eho is director of Tuscaloosa County's Industrial Development Authority. "They don't go out organizing small shops and that sort of thing. The UAW is different."
The issue is not money, Griffin said. It's power and peace. Whether represented by the union or not, GM workers here would earn union wages under a corporate policy to pay the same at all company plants. That wage is now about $8 an hour, which is about on par with other major unions here.
The UAW, it should be noted, is not exactly arriving in force. Most of the plants covered by the GM-UAW agreement are small, including only 6,700 workers out of GM's total work force of 450,000. The Tuscaloosa plant, when fully operational will employ 350 out of a total manufacturing labor force here of 11,000.
Also, still at issue is just how the agreement will square with existing right-to-work laws, which state that no one can be forced to join a union. For GM to recognize the UAW as bargaining agent at a plant here is one thing; for the union to get workers to sign membership cards and pay dues is another.
But UAW organizers are heralding the agreement as a long-sought-foot-in-the-door. And in Tuscaloosa, just the possibility the UAW would have a sizable presence has been enough to scare off at least one prospective new business.
As Griffin tells the story, the day GM-UAW agreement was announced, a northern metal fabrication company had sent a scout team to Tuscaloosa to assess it at a possible site for a half-million square-foot mill. Tuscaloosa was one of seven cities, out of a list of 116 candidates, that made the list of finalists. After the GM-UAW announcement, there were six.
"This particular did not want to be in a town with the UAW," said Griffin, who winced each of the several times he mentioned the episode.
Never mind the extensive coal and natural gas reserve in the area; neer mind the abundant supply of labor or the promise of friendly government relations from development-minded politicans; never mind even the quail shoots or the pressence of the Alabma Crimson Tide (both of which are favorite Griffin selling points about Tuscaloosa). Just the points presence of the UAW was enough to keep the other company out.
Buddy Griffin, for one, doesn't think the autoworkers will find much support in Tuscaloosa or wherever else in the South GM has invited them. Since 1972, GM has built nine new plants below the Mason-Dixon line. The UAW has tried and failed to organize all but one of them. "Come back here in June, once we've had a chance to vote," said Griffin, "and see what the story is."
Griffin may be right Unions' share of the fast-growing Sunbelt work force has been eroding. Between 1970 and 1974, the latest year for which government figures are available; unions' share of the southern work force fell from 15.5 percent to 13.9 percent. National union membership also fell during that period, but more slowly.
Also in the dozen states from Virginia through Texas, the number of union representation elections over-seen by the government last year was down 12 percent from 1970. For the nation as a whole, the number of elections rose 7 percent.
Some of this decline may be explained by the calculated resistance by companies that have moved South. Even GM, whose plants elsewhere have a reputation of being routinely organized, has in some instance campaigned aggressively against organizing attempts in the South . At a Package Electric Division plant in Clinton, Miss., for example, the drive against the union included radio and newspaper ads, leaflets, personal letters, movies and in-plant politicking. The union was portrayed as a vulture or ganster and was accused of trying to steal back jobs for northern workers.
But often community opposition to unions has been as significant an obstacle to an organizing drive as management's anti-union tactics. Albany, Ga., is one example.
"Mention unions here and you're not welcome," said J. T. Hall, president of United Rubber Workers Local 887, which represents between 60 and 80 percent (depending on who you ask) of those at the Albany Firestone plant.
It was a lack of public support, Hall said, that caused its local to lose about half its membership during the 1976 nationwide rubber workers strike. "We all walked off he explained. "Then, after about a couple of months, when strikers called the banks and stores in town to say they couldn't make some of their payments because they were still on strike, they were told to go back to work. Now that wouldn't happen in a lot of places up north. Here, their attitude is different."
Hall said local law enforcement officials made clear which side they supported during the strike. "They watched us like a hawk watching a chicken," he said. "They allowed us only four picketers, and county officers who were supposed to enforce an injunction during the day worked for Firestone as guards at night."
Despite their apparent cool regard for unions, Albany took with an apparent shrug the news that the UAW would be coming there, as well.
"I was surprised," said Lamar Clifton, executive director of Albany's chamber of commerce. "It was a new wrinkle to invite the union in like they did. But we knew when we went after GM there was a chance it would bring a union with it."
In large part the town's begruding acceptance of organized labor reflects a realization that unionism and industrialization go hand in hand.
In the past 10 years, a rubber plant, a sporting equipment company, a meatpacker and an airplane manufacturer have all settled in Albany, with union groups in tow. Most recently, the Miller Brewing Co. picked Albany as the site for a $247 million plant that will employ 1,400 workers, many of them likely to be represented by the United Brewers Association. Today, nearly 20 percent of the city's manufacturing work force is organized.
"We realize that as we grow industrially, the unions are bound to come," said James Gray Sr., who is not only editor and publisher of the Albany Herald but also currently the town's mayor.
But one thing the folks in Albany value about their growth so far is that it has been controlled - and peaceful. They intend to keep it that way.
Said Gray about the arrival of the UAW," So long as they don't try any bully-boy tactics, we won't have any problems."
Gray, who was raise and schooled in the north but regards himself as a southern conservative, offered this advice for the new union in town. "I think they will have to realize their old tactics won't work. We don't have any tenements here as they did in the northeast where the union started. People mostly own their own homes. Also, the church affiliation is strong, so there's less need here for a union affiliation.
"The circumstances are different here than they were up north." Pausing, he added, "We want above all to preserve our peaceful industrial community."