As a major union pushes into the South, red states push back. Alabama Reflector

This story originally appeared on Stateline.

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

Alabama’s move follows similar efforts in Georgia and Tennessee, where Republican leaders have also passed laws opposing a revived labor movement.

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

These new laws speak to growing push from unions toward Southern states — and fierce opposition from pro-business GOP leaders there. For decades, the region has attracted investment from foreign automakers with lucrative tax breaks, cheap labor and a lack of unions. Labor leaders hope that will change after workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, overwhelmingly supported 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 that their involvement can help raise wages and improve the working environment at auto plants. But Republican forces in the South see unions as an existential threat to their manufacturing economies — even more important as states increasingly compete for electric vehicles and battery factories.

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

Many southern states where unions have already begun to concentrate are less union-friendly. They are so-called right-to-work states, where every worker in a workplace can decide whether to join and pay union dues, although all workers are represented by the union.

In an effort to capitalize on the big contract wins it secured last year for workers at the country’s Big Three automakers (GM, Ford and Stellantis), the United Auto Workers union has announced plans to spend $40 million through 2026 to help organize workers in car and battery factories around the world. the country, with special attention to the South. The union did not respond to multiple requests from Stateline for comment.

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

And Ivey continued to oppose organized labor at auto plants last week when she announced she had signed the state’s secret ballot bill into law.

“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 determine the future of this great state.”

It is 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 factory there in 2008.

They thought scare tactics would be the best solution for them… and the union workers showed they have a backbone.

– Yusuf Hakeem, a Democrat from the state of Tennessee, on the impact of worker unions at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga

For Tennessee state representative Yusuf Hakeem, the 2023 union elections law passed in his state was yet another GOP attempt to “block” union power in the South.

“I think it’s typical of the Southern states to have that mentality: having less of a voice for employees than an exchange between employees and employers,” said Hakeem, a Democrat.

Hakeem said the UAW’s landslide victory 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 scare tactics would be the winning thing for them… and the union workers showed 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, has introduced model legislation similar to those 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 into red states, especially 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 being noticed and I fully expect it to spread.”

Vernuccio said most southern employers had “protected their workers” by calling for secret elections instead of signing union cards in public.

“There can be peer pressure, there can be coercion and intimidation,” he said, “and probably even more common is the union trying to make sure that employees … don’t get both sides of the story about what would happen if a union would organize them.”

Billy Dycus, chairman of the Tennessee AFL-CIO Labor Council, viewed the Republican Party’s fierce opposition to Chattanooga’s union efforts as a boon to the cause.

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

Dycus, whose organization represents more than 60,000 union workers in the state, including teachers, steelworkers and nurses, said union leaders have little incentive to mislead or pressure workers into joining a union, especially in states with right-to-work laws. work. Dycus said that because workers can choose whether to join a union, organizers must continually prove their worth to maintain membership and dues.

“They think card control means we’re going to go in and twist arms and force people to sign cards. That doesn’t make any sense because you have the right to work,” he said.

Opponents of the new union laws argue that insisting on elections via secret ballot by the National Labor Relations Board – as opposed to ticket checking – could subject workers to anti-union messages from management. Such elections, they argue, could also delay the inevitable in cases where the union has found a clear majority of support.

But pro-business Republicans are portraying the new laws as ways to protect the privacy of individual workers, who may feel peer pressure to sign union authorization cards in a card-check scenario.

“There is absolutely nothing in this bill that would prevent anyone from joining a union,” Georgia Sen. Mike Hodges, a Republican who introduced his state’s bill before Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, said in a statement. interview.

Hodges said the new law aims to ensure a “level playing field” in union decisions. He noted that his father, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Georgia, raised him and three siblings on union wages and benefits.

“We didn’t say we don’t want unions,” Hodges said. “Bless your heart, if you want to unite, unite.”

Alabama Sen. Arthur Orr, a Republican who sponsored the legislation in his state, said the secret ballot process protects workers from both management and union leadership.

“Workers are caught in a tug-of-war, if you will,” Orr said. “The secret ballot gives employees the opportunity to say what they want, on one side or the other. But when it comes to the final vote, they can do it privately.”

Union expansion could hurt economic development prospects, Orr said, but workers always have the right to join a union.

“If companies don’t take care of their employees – and you can define that however you want, whether it’s pay or time, work flexibility, safety, whatever – then that makes them vulnerable to organizational efforts,” he said .

Legal challenges

While some labor advocates have argued that state laws could be undermined by federal labor law, Orr said he has consulted with several attorneys about Alabama’s legislation. He noted that the Tennessee law had not been challenged in court.

Still, it’s a “close question” whether these laws could withstand a legal challenge, since federal laws govern most private-sector labor issues, said Benjamin Sachs, a professor of labor and industry at Harvard Law School. Some labor law advocates expect that courts could strike down state laws because they would be undermined by federal labor law.

“What I can say with certainty is that if it goes unchecked, we are really opening up the landscape for dramatically more state and city intervention in labor relations and the rules of union organizing,” he said in an interview.

In his blog, OnLabor, Sachs warned anti-union forces to be careful what they wished for: If Southern GOP laws hold, he wrote, it could open the door to blue states passing a litany of bills with opposing goals .

“If red states have the right to tie economic incentives to a card check ban, then blue states presumably have the right to tie economic incentives to a card check requirement,” he added in the interview.

While the recent labor victory in Tennessee shows that unions in the South can still find success with a secret ballot process, Sachs said the legislation could have a “chilling effect” on companies that might otherwise prefer voluntary recognition of labor unions.

“If it wasn’t an issue, they wouldn’t have passed these laws,” he said.

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