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As a key labor union pushes into the South, red states push back – The Mercury News


Kevin Hardy | Stateline.org (TNS)

Just days before workers at a Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama began voting last week on whether to unionize, Republican Gov. Kay Ivey signed a new law that would claw back state incentives from companies that voluntarily recognize labor unions.

Alabama’s move follows similar efforts in Georgia and Tennessee, where GOP leaders also have passed laws pushing against a reinvigorated labor movement.

The laws require that unions be formed only by secret ballots rather than the so-called card check process, in which employers can voluntarily recognize a union without a protracted election process. And under the laws, companies that voluntarily recognize unions risk losing state incentives, which amount to billions of dollars invested by governments to bring automakers to the region.

These new laws speak to the growing push of labor unions into Southern states — and the fierce opposition of pro-business GOP leaders there. For decades, the region has attracted investments from foreign automakers with lucrative tax breaks, low-cost labor and a lack of labor unions. Labor leaders hope that is changing now that workers at Volkswagen’s plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, overwhelmingly endorsed a union in April, becoming the first foreign auto plant in the South ever organized by the United Auto Workers.

Unions such as the UAW argue their involvement can help boost wages and improve the work environment at auto plants. But GOP forces in the South view unions as an existential threat to their manufacturing economies — of even more importance now that states are increasingly competing for electric vehicle and battery plants.

Mercedes-Benz workers outside of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on Friday voted against joining a union at their plant, in a setback for the labor movement. But more organizing drives are underway in Alabama and South Carolina, as well as in California.

Many Southern states where unions have begun to focus already are less friendly to organizing. They are so-called right-to-work states, where each employee in a workplace can decide whether to join and pay union dues, though all workers are represented by the union.

Seeking to capitalize on major contract wins it secured for workers last year at the nation’s Big Three automakers (GM, Ford and Stellantis), the United Auto Workers union announced plans to spend $40 million through 2026 to help organize workers at auto and battery plants across the country, with a particular focus on the South. The union did not respond to multiple Stateline requests for comment.

A week before April’s monumental vote at the Tennessee Volkswagen plant, six Southern Republican governors warned that unionization would jeopardize the region’s auto jobs. In addition to Ivey in Alabama, the governors of Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas also signed on.

And Ivey continued to rally against organized labor in auto plants last week, as she announced she had signed the state’s bill regarding secret ballots.

“Alabama is not Michigan,” Ivey said at a chamber of commerce event last week. “… We want to ensure that Alabama values, not Detroit values, continue to define the future of this great state.”

It’s unclear how much impact the new laws will have. The vote in Chattanooga was conducted by secret ballot with nearly three-quarters of all workers who voted in the election choosing to join the UAW. Tennessee awarded Volkswagen more than $500 million in incentives to build its plant there in 2008.

To Tennessee state Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, the 2023 law regarding union elections passed in his state was yet another GOP effort to “blockade” union power in the South.

“It’s typical, in my view, for Southern states to have that kind of a mindset: to have less of a voice for workers as opposed to having an exchange between workers and employer,” said Hakeem, a Democrat.

Hakeem said the UAW’s landslide win in his hometown of Chattanooga exposed a political miscalculation on the part of Republicans who view economic development prospects and union organizing as mutually exclusive.

“I thought it was huge,” he said. “They thought that scare tactics would be the winning thing for them … and the union workers demonstrated that they have a backbone.”

‘Right-to-work’ states

The American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group known as ALEC that works with lawmakers across the country, introduced model legislation similar to the laws already passed in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee.

ALEC did not respond to a request for comment, but the organization’s involvement could further push the legislative concept across red states, particularly in the South.

That expansion is likely to happen, said Vincent Vernuccio, a senior fellow at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank that worked with Tennessee Republican lawmakers on their legislation.

“We’re seeing a snowball effect,” he said of the legislation. “It is getting noticed and I fully expect it to spread.”

Vernuccio said most Southern employers had been “protecting their employees” by calling for secret ballot elections rather than the signing of union cards in the open.

“There could be peer pressure, there can be coercion and intimidation,” he said, “and probably even more common is the union’s trying to make sure that employees … are not receiving both sides of the story on what would happen if a union organized them.”

Billy Dycus, president of the Tennessee AFL-CIO Labor Council, viewed fierce GOP opposition to Chattanooga’s union effort as a boon to the cause.

“I think that helped more than it hurt,” he said. “People say, ‘You know what, we’re kind of tired of the government telling us how we should run our lives.’ “

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