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Labor Day has roots in unions

When Marc McQuillen is not working at the General Motors' plant on Westinghouse Boulevard in south Charlotte, you can often find him at his Rock Hill home growing roses, or cycling through downtown, or caring for his 91-year-old mother, Isabelle. He volunteers his free time to causes as diverse as the Second Harvest Food Bank and efforts to allow Sunday alcohol sales in York County.

When Tom Ayers is not at work at the Abitibi-Bowater plant in Catawba, you can find him volunteering his time with Scout Troop 132. He has also been a volunteer firefighter and teacher at York Technical College.

"Whenever someone is in need, I try to help them," he said.

When Bill Wise is not at work at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, you will likely find him outdoors, camping with his family or in the forest hunting, particularly from October to January when it is black powder hunting season.

Today, like most people, they will be celebrating Labor Day.

They are regular guys, your neighbors, the people you see at church or at school or in the line at the grocery store.

But unlike for most people, Labor Day is not just a way to mark the end of summer. McQuillen, Ayers and Wise will stand with pride today, marking the holiday's roots as a day to honor labor unions.

McQuillen, Ayers and Wise are not only union members. They also are, or have been, local union presidents, representing, respectively, local employees for the United Automobile Workers, United Steelworkers and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

Their union jobs don't come with big paychecks or perks.

McQuillen serves without pay as president of Local 2404 Amalgamated at the GM site, which distributes replacement parts to more than 700 General Motors dealers.

Ayers served as the president for the maintenance union at Abitibi-Bowater for 12 years before stepping aside this year as he nears retirement. The president of Local 9-925 makes $200 a month.

"You might as well be unpaid because of the amount of time involved," he said.

Wise is not only president of Local 1725 at the airport, but also is the president of the Catawba Central Labor Council, a group composed of union workers and their local stretching from east of Spartanburg to Florence to Winnsboro and all of York County - between 12,000 and 13,000 workers.

Combined they have almost 100 years of union member experience. Each said having unions in York County and the region makes the economy stronger for all workers.

The presence of unions, they said, helps increase local wages, makes sure people are fairly treated and compensated and helps keep companies operating.

Their efforts benefit all workers, regardless of whether they are union members. South Carolina is a right-to-work state; you don't have to join a union as a condition of employment.

Each also tried to dispel what he said are misconceptions about unions.

Expensive benefits - "We pay a good portion of our benefits," McQuillen said.

Overpaid - "We don't want to price ourselves out of a job," Ayers said.

Unions bankrupt companies - The reverse is true, they said.

"We work together to solve problems, not butt heads," McQuillen said.

The best example of that locally was Abitibi-Bowater's recent emergence from Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

When Abitibi-Bowater filed for bankruptcy in April of 2009, there was much uncertainty. With more than 900 workers at the time, closing the Catawba plant would have resulted in economic chaos for the area.

Ayers and Mike Godfried, president of the production local at the plant, were part of the discussions to turn Abitibi-Bowater around.

"Because we had a contract, there were things we didn't lose, our 401K match, holiday pay," Ayers said.

The unions negotiated a 3 percent pay cut. They also gave Abitibi-Bowater ideas on how to make the plant more profitable, Ayers said.

The overall result, said Wise, is that unions promote a healthy community.

By the numbers

153.2 million - number of people 16 years and older employed nationally as of July 2011.

50.2 million - number of people employed in management and professional positions.

16.5 million - number of commuters who leave between midnight and 6 a.m. to get to work.

8.1 million - number of people who work at home.

3.2 million - number of people who commute more than 90 minutes to work. The average commute is 25 minutes.

$47,127 - median income for males in 2009

$36,278 - median income for females in 2009

Source: U.S. Census