By: Paul Clowes, 2022 Summer Law Clerk and Chris Gantt-Sorenson
As covered in a recent post, employees at a Greenville Starbucks location became the first Starbucks employees in South Carolina to vote to unionize. Since then, employees at two other South Carolina stores in Anderson and Columbia have followed suit. Given this development, employers are sure to wonder if unionization is on the rise. Businesses can breathe easy knowing South Carolina remains the state with the lowest unionization rate in the country—and the likelihood of employee unionization remains relatively low. South Carolina continues to be a business-friendly state suitable for start-ups and domestic and international businesses looking to invest in the state.
As the table below outlines, only 1.7% of employees in South Carolina were union members in 2021 (down from 2.2% in 2020) compared to the national average of 10.3%. South Carolina and its cities have some of the lowest rates of union membership in the country in both the public and private sectors. Notably, the state’s rate of private sector union membership is remarkably low.
Private sector unionization in South Carolina is at 1.1%, well below the national average of 6.1%. Interestingly, Greenville has the lowest private unionization rate (0.4%) for any metropolitan area in the country with a population of over 120,000. In the rare instances unionization exists in private companies in the state, it appears to exist mainly in highly specialized industries, such as food production, architecture, energy, and maritime transportation, or at local branches of large international brands. Despite the recent unionization of several Starbucks stores within the state, there appears to be very little union activity within local or regional private businesses. The South Carolina AFL-CIO appears to be pushing for additional private unionization within the state, but remains focused on large companies like Starbucks and Amazon, not regional or local businesses.
Public sector unionization is more common than private sector unionization throughout the country, which holds true in South Carolina. That said, South Carolina’s public sector union membership rate of 4.6% is well below the national average of 33.9%. In South Carolina, the largest unions are composed of employees of the state’s emergency services and education departments, which are particularly prevalent in the state’s larger metropolitan areas.
In sum, local and regional private employers in South Carolina should not be unduly concerned about union activity within their ranks. Although there may be an additional push by labor organizers to encourage employees or multinational companies to unionize, South Carolina’s business-friendly attitude seems here to stay.
Paul Clowes is a 2022 Summer Law Clerk in Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd’s Greenville office. He is a student at the University of South Carolina School of Law and expects to graduate in May 2024. He received his bachelor’s degree from Clemson University. Before entering law school, Paul was a professional soccer player.