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Right-to-work law praised

Posted on Tuesday, December 18, 2012 at 10:06 am

Sen. Lamar Alexander

Sen. Lamar Alexander

Lamar Alexander, U.S. Senator

The president was in Michigan this week on what looked like a campaign event.  He was there to encourage the people of that state to continue to deny working people the right to get or keep a job without having to pay union dues and to continue to perpetuate a system that will keep our auto industry from being able to compete in the world marketplace.

Despite the president’s trip, on Dec. 10th, Michigan became the 24th right-to-work state in the United States the next day.  This new law will ensure that employees in Michigan do not have to pay union dues in order to get or keep a job.

The president said that Michigan legislators shouldn’t be taking away the people’s right to bargain for better wages or working conditions. But no one, in passing a right-to-work law, is taking away workers’ rights.  They’re actually giving them a new right – the right not to have to pay union dues in order to get or keep a job. Workers have the right to collectively bargain.  Federal laws have recognized that since the 1930s.  But, since 1947, the federal government has also said that states have the right to determine whether a state may prohibit compulsory unionism.

The president said that these right-to-work laws “have nothing to do with economics and everything to do with politics.”  I would respectfully disagree with that based on my life’s experience.  Thirty years ago, Tennessee was the third poorest state.  As governor, I was looking for a way to increase family incomes and attract new jobs.  So I went off to Japan to recruit Nissan.  We had virtually no auto jobs in Tennessee at the time.  The Nissan executives took a look at a map of the United States at night with the lights showing that most of the people lived in the east or out west.  The center of the market is where you wanted to be if you are making big, heavy things, and the center of the market had moved toward the southeast.  So Nissan looked aggressively at Tennessee, Kentucky and Georgia.  But, then they looked at something else – none of the states north of us had a right-to-work law. They had a very different labor environment.

So Nissan came to Tennessee.  They weren’t the only ones.  General Motors and the United Auto Workers’ partnership came to Tennessee with a Saturn plant.  They still have an important General Motors plant there where the workers are members of the United Auto Workers, but Tennessee is a right-to-work state.  Over the last 30 years, there have probably been a dozen large assembly plants built in the Southeastern United States.  There are about 1,000 suppliers in our state today.

What has been the effect of the arrival of the auto industry in Tennessee?  One-third of our manufacturing jobs today are auto-related jobs.  And what has been the effect on the United States?  It has maintained a competitive environment where those who want to sell cars in the United States can make them in the United States.

I believe that what saved the U.S. auto industry, as much as anything else, were the right-to-work laws and the existence of a competitive environment in the Southeastern United States, where workers could make cars efficiently, be paid well for their work and make them here in the United States, instead of in Japan or Germany.

For our country to exist over the next 20 or 30 years in a very competitive world, where jobs can be anywhere, where products can be manufactured anywhere, we want at least those things that are going to be sold here to be made here.  Having a right-to-work law which permits the UAW and General Motors to have a partnership at one plant in Tennessee and Nissan and Volkswagen to have a nonunion plant at another place in Tennessee, by vote of the employees, I submit, will make us a stronger, more competitive country.