As Volkswagen prepares to celebrate the opening today of Chattanooga's biggest manufacturing venture, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., warned Monday that such Tennessee investments could be hurt in the future by a recent complaint by the National Labor Relations Board against the Boeing Corp.
NLRB Acting General Counsel Lafe Solomon said Boeing violated federal labor law by deciding to transfer a second production line for its 787 Dreamliner airplanes to a nonunion facility in South Carolina. Solomon said Boeing acted for discriminatory reasons because of past strike activity by unions in Washington state.
"A worker's right to strike is a fundamental right," Solomon said.
But Alexander and South Carolina Sens. Jim DeMint and Lindsey Graham, along with 31 other Republicans, are backing legislation to restrict the ability of the federal labor board to limit where a business may locate new production, even when it is bargaining over union contracts in another state.
Alexander said unionized suppliers to the new Volkswagen facility may be unable to move into right-to-work states like Tennessee under the NLRB's new policy.
"I can't think of a single action that the government in Washington could take that would make it harder to create new manufacturing jobs in Tennessee," said Alexander, who as Tennessee's governor in the 1980s recruited Nissan and GM's Saturn division to Middle Tennessee. "We should have another wave of suppliers headed to the Southeast, but I'm afraid that this NLRB decision will freeze companies, such as these suppliers, who might be thinking about expanding into a right-to-work state. This is bad news for Chattanooga, for Tennessee and for our country."
Alexander said the foreign transplant carmakers that have located in the Southeast steadily have gained market share at the expense of their unionized competitors from Detroit.
"In the past 30 years, we've gone from having almost no auto jobs in Tennessee to auto jobs now representing nearly a third of our manufacturing jobs and with the opening of the new Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga Tuesday we should see even more auto jobs in Tennessee," he said. "The auto industry has moved from the Midwest to the Southeast over the past 30 years because they couldn't make what they wanted to make in an economical manner in the non-right-to-work states."
The initial wage rate for production workers at the VW plant in Chattanooga - $14.50 an hour - is only about half the wage rate paid to most auto workers in the Midwest covered by the top tier of the United Auto Workers contract or what Volkswagen pays most of its union employees in Germany.
UAW allows new workers to be hired at $14 an hour. But GM, Ford and Chrysler are hiring far fewer workers than their Southern competitors.
Alexander insisted that auto jobs from Vokswagen and others in Tennessee have helped boost the state's economy and personal income. "If workers are not satisfied, they have every right to vote to unionize," he said.
But three times in the past three decades, Nissan workers in Smyrna rejected UAW organizing attempts even though UAW represented workers only 40 miles away at GM's former Saturn plant in Spring Hill.
Alexander said his bill would ensure that a business could expand anywhere it wants.
But U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said Alexander's proposal would "politicize and potentially stop what should be a legal proceeding" before the NLRB. The initial complaint by the general counsel is not a decision, and Blumenthal said introducing legislation or conducting congressional hearings to try to direct the decision in an ongoing case could "intimidate or interfere with this lawful proceeding" and undermine the NLRB's independence.
Contact Dave Flessner at email@example.com or at 757-6340