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BCA’s Helena Duncan: The United Auto Workers must not do to Alabama what it did to Detroit

In the early 1990s and prior, Alabama’s top industry was textiles, which was evidenced by the low-wage sock mills that peppered the state along with larger facilities making blue jeans, athletic wear, and other apparel items.

But in 1993, Mercedes shocked the world and launched a transformation that continues to benefit our state today when it announced intentions to construct a $350 million plant in Vance, Alabama, to manufacture its new M-Class SUV automobile.

Suppliers needed to make the vehicle’s components soon located here, and once the wisdom of Mercedes’ decision became apparent, companies like Mazda Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai built facilities in Alabama.

Those developments came at the perfect time because Alabama’s textile industry largely evaporated soon after when free trade agreements negotiated during that era sent thousands of our jobs to Mexico, China, and other low-wage nations.

Like layer upon layer of building blocks, the firm foundation that our success in the automotive arena provided later allowed Alabama to build a world-class aerospace sector by attracting Boeing, Airbus, Lockheed Martin, Sikorsky, and the many high-tech firms in the Tennessee Valley.

Industrial partners like Austal USA are also bringing jobs and opportunity to the Gulf Coast region by building the next generation of naval warships in the Yellowhammer State.

But you may ask what prompted Mercedes to make that first bold decision to locate here more than 30 years ago.

Aside from the industrial incentives that all competing states offered, I believe that three factors unique to Alabama drew the automotive giant’s attention — an eager and trainable workforce with a work ethic unparalleled anywhere in the nation, our low cost and business-friendly economic climate, and the lack of labor union activity and participation.

RELATED: Gov. Kay Ivey: Unions want to target one of Alabama’s crown jewel industries, automotive manufacturing

This combination continues to offer a perfect three-legged stool for economic development, but if any of those legs are lost, the stool cannot continue to stand, and, unfortunately, one of those legs is being threatened.

Just last month, the United Auto Workers, commonly known as the UAW, announced a renewed effort to expand its footprint by organizing laborers in states like ours that have been historically and traditionally resistant to union activity.

If they are successful, Alabama, and states like ours, could soon see their automotive industry quickly recede like a falling tide.

The UAW and other labor unions are typically most active in areas where the cost of living is expensive, taxes are high, and well-paying, long-lasting jobs are scarce, but in Alabama, our cost of living and taxes are among the lowest in the nation, and we currently have an abundance of lucrative 21st Century employment opportunities for anyone who seeks them.

Alabama’s automotive companies already offer generous salary and benefits packages across the board, and they score highly on employee satisfaction surveys.

Giving the UAW a toehold within the state is the same as dumping a large and toxic dose of castor oil into a delightfully delicious economic development recipe.

Since that first stunning announcement, Mercedes has continued to expand its presence in Alabama, added new models, including electric vehicles, to its portfolio manufactured in Vance, and invested more than $7 billion in the Yellowhammer State.

Hyundai recently announced a $300 million expansion at its Montgomery facility and is adding 200 new jobs while one of its major suppliers, Hyundai Mobis, is building a $400 million, 400 job plant that will provide batteries for electric vehicles and become operational by 2025.

RELATED: Helena Duncan: The Alabama we know is making strides for business

Mazda Toyota Manufacturing is currently working to hire 300 additional workers in order to reach a 4,000-employee goal at its $2.3 billion automobile assembly plant in Huntsville.

And the $3 billion Honda plant in Talladega County has made a large investment in upgrades to ease and hasten production of its Pilot SUV, Ridgeline pickup truck, and other vehicles.

With so much expansion, investment, and, most importantly, job creation taking place within Alabama’s automotive sector, it makes no sense to risk the UAW upending this delicate balance and reversing such positive trends.

It recalls one of our best known and often used Southern expressions, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

In order to combat the UAW’s efforts, which could export our jobs to other regions and kill our ability to recruit new and expanding industries, the Business Council of Alabama and our allies are beginning an informational campaign titled “Alabama Strong.” 

Using a website, online advertisements, and other forms of digital and social media, our campaign will provide Alabamians with a full and thorough picture of the economic dangers that unionization presents. “Alabama Strong” will also suggest ways all of us can take a stand and discourage the UAW from making our state its main battlefield.

Newspaper headlines are often filled with stories about the “decline of Detroit” as portions of the city famous for automotive manufacturing now look like Wall Street on Black Tuesday in 1929. Jobs are scarce, opportunities are few, and valid hopes for a return to its glory days as an economic center are rare.

Much of the decay that exists in the “Motor City” today results from untenable demands that the UAW placed on its automobile manufacturers, an unwise move that sent untold numbers of jobs to right-to-work states like ours and crippled a once great metropolis.

Join our “Alabama Strong” campaign and resolve that we will not let the UAW do to Alabama what it did to Detroit.

Helena Duncan is president and CEO of the Business Council of Alabama.

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