Unions set their sights on Alabama after victory in Tennessee
The United Auto Workers union won a small but important victory in Chattanooga, Tennessee, last week, as skilled-trades workers at Volkswagen’s only U.S. factory voted 108-44 to grant the UAW the right to collectively bargain on their behalf.
VW contends the vote should not have been allowed because the plant’s full staff of 1,400 should not be impacted by the vote of just 162 of their colleagues. The German automaker plans to appeal to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
“We believe that a union of only maintenance employees fractures our workforce and does not take into account the overwhelming community of interest shared between our maintenance and production employees,” Volkswagen said in a statement.
In February of 2014, the UAW’s attempts to unionize the full Chattanooga plant came up short by a vote of 712-626. The hotly contested vote was seen as a message that the South would not bend to the will of big labor bosses, who are often cited as the reason auto manufacturers abandoned Detroit and moved South in the first place.
The UAW has tried for years to unionize Alabama’s car manufacturing facilities, most notably the Mercedes-Benz plan in Vance. But with few notable exceptions, Alabama workers have rejected the unions’ overtures.
Alabama is a right to work state, meaning companies cannot require union membership as a condition of employment. However, if unionization of a particular manufacturer is successful, all workers would, by requirement of contract, be represented by the union. Conservatives are often quick to point out that this caveat strips the rights of workers who wish not to be a member of a union, and silences their voices.
Alabama’s status as a right to work state has been credited with being the most important variable in several large manufacturers deciding to bring jobs into the state, including Airbus, Austal USA and Remington.
“Over the last two decades, many businesses that were located in heavily unionized states have moved their operations to Alabama, choosing to locate their facilities in the right-to-work Alabama due to the ability to compete in the global marketplace,” said Business Council of Alabama President and CEO William J. Canary. “A union presence in Alabama would only serve to stifle job creation and economic opportunity. I continue to believe that free enterprise can best meet the needs of its employees by maintaining an open and direct relationship with them, without the interference of a third party.”
Earlier this year, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley’s efforts to thwart the unionization of the Golden Dragon Copper Tubing plant in Wilcox County failed by one vote.
Bentley said that the unionization of manufacturing plants in Alabama hurts the state’s ability to recruit companies and threatens to damage Alabama’s budding relationship with Asian manufacturers looking to locate in the U.S.
“(I)f I’m going to recruit companies — especially from the far east — if I’m going to recruit a new Hyundai plant, or any kind (of auto manufacturer)… if they know that if they come here they’re non-unionized and then ten years later their plant unionizes, they don’t like that, especially Asian companies do not like that,” he said. “They will not come to a non-right-to-work state. It does upset them… It does hurt in the recruitment of companies to come to Alabama and it does hurt me in creating jobs when a plant is non-unionized and suddenly it becomes a unionized plant.”
The Wilcox County plant employs approximately 150 people with salaries up to the low $40,000s in an area where the median household income is just over $24,000 per year. The plant is expected to grow to as many as 500 employees at full capacity, but it is unclear how the potential unionization of the plant could impact the growth trajectory going forward.
With the UAW and other unions now viewing Alabama as their next primary target in the South, economic developers are battening down the hatches for a fight over the future of the Yellowhammer State’s economy.