Tennessee lawmakers OK $900 million incentive package for Ford plant

Tennessee lawmakers gather for a special session of the Tennessee General Assembly to take up incentives for Ford to create an electric vehicle manufacturing campus in West Tennessee, Monday, Oct. 18, 2021, at the State Capitol in Nashville, Tenn. (Stephanie Amador/The Tennessean via AP)

NASHVILLE - Tennessee lawmakers on Wednesday approved and sent to Gov. Bill Lee his nearly $900 million incentive and infrastructure legislation for Ford Motor Co.'s planned $5.6 billion electric truck and battery complex in rural West Tennessee.

Senators approved two bills, one a funding measure that includes $500 million for Ford and its partner SK Innovation to help cover their costs in the massive project in Haywood County. The other established a new West Tennessee Megasite Authority to oversee the state's commitment.

"This single-largest investment in state history marks a tremendous win for rural Tennessee and will strengthen our workforce for generations," Lee said in a statement. "The special session has given Tennesseans clear visibility into the project, and I thank the General Assembly for their legislative action."

With some Republicans in the GOP-controlled General Assembly expressing nervousness about Ford's labor policies, Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, earlier during Wednesday's session sought to amend the bill to prohibit Ford from allowing the United Auto Workers to unionize the plant through the "card check" process seen by critics as union-friendly.

That is one of three processes permitted by the National Labor Relations Board that allow members to organize into a labor union. The "card check" process involves a majority of workers signing authorization forms or "cards" stating they wish to be represented by the union.

Smith said some local manufacturers prefer a secret ballot process. The process, which provides for voting on site, was used twice in Chattanooga at Volkswagen's plant when the United Auto Workers sought to organize the plant. Workers voted twice against unionizing the plant, most recently in 2019. During the second effort, independent expenditure groups spent big on television ads and other media advertising. Lee came to Chattanooga to advocate in 2019 against the UAW's certification on the secret-ballot vote.

"After spending several days on the phone with some of our manufacturing leaders and large employers in my district that are not automotive manufacturing folks, they have a concern about protecting our right-to-work status," Smith told colleagues.

A number of Republicans resisted, saying it was coming too late. Smith's amendment was tabled on a 64-24 vote, with four representatives not voting.

Representatives then passed the underlying measure, Senate Bill 8001, on a 90-3 vote, with two members present but not voting. Smith was among the two members not voting.

"I support the opportunity of welcoming another terrific company to Tennessee and had no plans to vote in opposition," Smith said in a text. "It was, however, important to many of our large employers in Hamilton County to have a secret ballot as part of an employee's rights that have served our state and workers well. My vote in the affirmative would have been cast for that critical stance representing those who spoke with me and those who ensure that practice."

National Right to Work President Mark Mix sent Lee a letter Tuesday.

"Today I write to ask that as Tennessee lawmakers consider legislation approving a reported $500 million in incentives for the placement of a Ford-SK Innovation electric vehicle and battery facility in Western Tennessee, you take action to ensure that state incentives do not subsidize coercive unionism that undermines the worker freedom that Tennessee's Right to Work law stands for," the letter said.

"This must include ensuring that any decision by workers at the new facility regarding whether or not to affiliate with the United Autoworkers union or other labor organization be made with the full protections of a secret ballot election, and without any backroom deal between Ford and union officials over the conditions of a unionization drive," Mix added.

A reporter asked Lee during a news conference Wednesday why he didn't get involved as Mix and other groups asked - and whether the agreement with Ford directed that he not do so.

"We're a right-to-work state," Lee said. "What that means is the voters on that job site will determine their work environment. And Ford Motor Co. has been very clear about that and so have we."

Earlier, House Finance Committee Chair Patsy Hazlewood, a Signal Mountain Republican who presented the incentives and infrastructure funding bill, said the legislation was the culmination of a lot of hard work.

"Today we are at the reward for the leap of faith that this legislature and previous administrations have taken by investing in the megasite in West Tennessee," she said in presenting the bill on the House floor. "We know as you are well aware they have a great project that is ready to start moving dirt and bring jobs and really change the face of West Tennessee and our state for the better."

Following passage, Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, told the Times Free Press, "I'm glad we passed it, I'm glad we passed it with an overwhelming majority."

West Tennessee legislators and Middle Tennessee legislators helped Hamilton County with incentives and similar infrastructure build-outs for Volkswagen in Chattanooga and Wacker Chemie in Bradley County, the senator noted.

"We need to extend it over to the west part of the state and get the state balanced," Gardenhire said. "I think it's a great thing for the state."

Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, praised the passage.

"I hope it's a harbinger for the future that Democrats and Republicans can sign off the same page in the interests of our citizens," he said by telephone.

"I was very pleased that the efforts to minimize the impact of unions failed," Hakeem added. "This is a new day, a new age, and one thing we want to see is the middle class of Tennessee as the dominant force going forward. ... The involvement of unions in my view ... will expand the middle class in Tennessee."

After voting for the bill in his first official legislative session since being formally sworn into office last week, Rep. Greg Vital, R-Harrison, noted lawmakers and the local delegation helped "facilitate the economic boom" that Southeast Tennessee has experienced from Volkswagen and associated investments.

"My commitment today with a majority of the General Assembly gives West Tennessee a chance to prosper also," Vital said by telephone.

Also voting for the legislation were Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and Rep. Esther Helton, R-East Ridge. Efforts to reach them Wednesday evening were unsuccessful.

Watson endorsed a social media post by Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett saying the project "will bring high-quality jobs and have a transformative, multi-generational impact."

Earlier, the House approved Senate Bill 8002, the funding and infrastructure bill, on a 90-3 vote. But a House amendment on the composition of the megasite board sent the measure back to the Senate. Among other things, it expands the number of board members from nine to 11, with both the governor and two legislative members serving on it. That also added additional cost to the funding bill.

Senators concurred with the changes, sending both bills to Lee.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.