A New Ford Plant in Rural Tennessee Inspires Anti-Union Backlash

The American Legislative Exchange Council has plans to penalize companies that voluntarily recognize unions

Don Wiener July 25, 2023

This article was originally published in Exposed by the Center for Media and Democracy.

When the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) holds its annual meeting in Orlando this week, GOP state legislators and corporate lobbyists will likely embrace model legislation that creates new barriers to union organizing efforts across the country. The proposal is a replica of Tennessee’s Employee Free Choice and Privacy Act (SB 0650 / HB 1342), which passed earlier this year and was signed into law by GOP Gov. Bill Lee (R).

Backed by five ALEC-affiliated state legislators, the bill is a direct counterpunch to Ford Motor Company’s decision to voluntarily recognize a union in Tennessee after the state awarded it $884 million in tax and other incentives in 2021 to build a new lithium battery plant there, which is expected to employ 5,600 workers.

Since the United Auto Workers (UAW) has what is known as a “neutrality agreement” with Ford, the company has agreed to voluntarily accept a union once a majority of workers at the new plant in rural Tennessee sign union membership cards. The plant is being built in Haywood County, 50 miles northeast of Memphis. The county is one of two in the state that is majority black.

That decision angered right-wing groups and legislators who take great pride in Tennessee being an anti-union state. The new law that passed this spring, however, will not affect Ford, as it only applies to subsidies received (or unions recognized) after it took effect on July 1.

The Tennessee bill that serves as the ALEC model was sponsored by two members of the ALEC task force who serve in the Tennessee House: Republican Reps. Dennis Powers and Dan Powell. Three of the bill’s five Senate sponsors are also ALEC members. 

ALEC is a pay-to-play operation in which state legislators and corporate lobbyists meet behind closed doors to write model legislation that advances a radical right-wing, pro-corporate, and pro-Republican agenda on everything from suppressing voter access and denying climate change to opposing unions and undermining public education. Ford dropped its ALEC membership in 2016 due to growing concerns about the group’s refusal to recognize the climate crisis.

Less than 1% of ALEC’s budget comes from legislators’ dues. Instead, the group relies on right-wing donors and corporations for virtually all of its funding. In reviewing tax returns for the Charles Koch Foundation and Koch’s Stand Together Fellowships from 2014–19, the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) identified $2.7 million in Koch funding for ALEC, which also benefits from strong support from other ultra-conservatives such as the BradleyCoors, and Searle foundations.

ALEC has long championed anti-labor legislation—including so-called “right-to-work” laws that grant all employees the benefits of union membership even if they don’t join the union or pay dues. ALEC’s new proposal is an attempt to further weaken unions and dilute their political power.

The proposed new policy ALEC’s economic development task force is expected to endorse during the July 26–28 meeting is called the Taxpayer Dollars Protect Workers Act. It essentially blacklists any employer that voluntarily recognizes a union from receiving state economic development incentives like those Tennessee gave Ford and prohibits unions from enrolling members and creating a bargaining unit unless a secret ballot election is held through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Violators of that ban would be forced to repay any state economic development grants they received. 

Although studies show that a majority of workers would join a union if given the chance, unions often lose NLRB elections even if a majority of workers have signed union cards. The reasons are complicated, but roadblocks to establishing new unions through the NLRB election process include everything from employers intimidating workers with threats to hire replacements to firing employees who support unionization and threatening to close the business. 

“And under current law, employers are allowed to legally lobby workers against forming a union—including in very coercive ways—from the moment a worker is hired,” according to the AFL-CIO and Economic Policy Institute. “In addition, the employer [can actively] prohibit union representatives from talking with workers inside the workplace.”

How neutrality helps unions

A neutrality or voluntary agreement between an employer and a union avoids these roadblocks by allowing union representatives access to workers in return for agreeing to certain terms, such as not striking during contract negotiations.

Employers agree to accept union authorization cards signed by a majority of eligible employees as a means of union endorsement from both sides. The process, which saves everyone time and money, is called a “card check” and allows the parties to avoid some of the lengthy deliberations and acrimony associated with an NLRB election. 

Though the employer grants union representatives access to workers, beyond that it neither opposes nor supports the unionization effort. While stopping short of endorsing the union, Ford announced that it would let workers decide for themselves whether or not to accept the UAW as their bargaining representative.

A number of major employers have recently adopted neutrality agreements. In January, Microsoft recognized the Communication Workers of America as the bargaining representative for 300 video game testers at a subsidiary, its first voluntary union recognition in the U.S. In September 2022, Major League Baseball owners agreed to allow minor league players to join the  MLB Players Association. 

The same month, Forever Energy announced that it had reached a neutrality agreement with the UAW for the company’s forthcoming EV-related battery plant in Shreveport, Louisiana, noting that the agreement “captures the company and union’s commitment to mutual respect and open communication.”

Similar to Tennessee, Kentucky is providing Ford with a performance-based loan of up to $250 million, along with a building site and other funds for workforce development so that the company will build a similar plant there.

Even with the neutrality agreement as part of Ford’s contract with the UAW, both Kentucky and Tennessee are right-to-work states, so workers who refuse to pay union dues still benefit from union-negotiated contracts.

Don Wiener

Don Wiener is a contributor to the Center for Media and Democracy. Don has 40 years experience working as a policy analyst, researcher, media strategist, and coalition coordinator for dozens of community, public interest, labor, and environmental groups. He has a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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