Tennessee state Rep. Smith plans legislation to restrict unionization efforts

Although she raised the issue during the Ford special session, her efforts would only affect future projects

Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford speaks during a presentation on the planned factory to build electric F-Series trucks and the batteries to power future electric Ford and Lincoln vehicles Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, in Memphis, Tenn. The Tennessee plant is to be built near Stanton, Tenn. / AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

NASHVILLE - After being blocked in her legislative effort to prohibit Ford Motor Co. from allowing the United Auto Workers to unionize workers at a planned plant in West Tennessee through a "card check" certification process viewed by critics as too union friendly, state Rep. Robin Smith says she intends to offer a retooled version of the bill to halt the method next year.

But it won't apply to the now-approved legislation for the Ford plant, the Hixson Republican said, because it can't be applied retroactively. She said her hope is to have it apply to efforts at other companies and operations going forward.

Smith had offered a House floor amendment Wednesday in this week's special session on the appropriation bill brought by Gov. Bill Lee as part of his agreement with Ford and its partner SK Innovation. The companies are investing $5.6 billion in an electric truck production facility and accompanying battery plant in rural West Tennessee.

Lee's bill, which had yet to reach his desk as of late Friday afternoon, provides $500 million to Ford to reimburse the company as it builds the facilities. On top of that, the measure contains an additional $384 million that Tennessee says is necessary to provide necessary sewer, road and other infrastructure as well as a technical college in Stanton, Tennessee, in Haywood County.

"It was explained to me that when passing strictly an appropriations bill, it has to stand alone and can't change anything in state code," said Smith, who also noted that GOP colleagues also wanted to have a broader conversation about union certification procedures.

The card-check process is an often union-driven method for workers to organize into a labor union. It involves a majority of the employees in the bargaining unit signing authorization forms or "cards" stating they wish to be represented by the union.

The National Labor Relations Board permits companies to voluntarily allow that as an alternative to a standard secret-ballot vote by workers.

photo United Auto Workers President Ray Curry, center, talks with Jim Farley, Ford president and CEO, left, after a presentation on the planned factory to build electric F-Series trucks and the batteries to power future electric Ford and Lincoln vehicles Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, in Memphis, Tenn. The plant in Tennessee is to be built near Stanton, Tenn. / AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Employers generally prefer secret-ballot elections in which workers vote at the plant. In Chattanooga, workers, independent groups and businesses opposed to the United Auto Workers' effort to unionize Volkswagen's assembly plant operation opposed the card-check process and twice forced the unionization issue into the secret-ballot process. The UAW fought back and it became a highly public battle with both sides spending on political ads.

Critics say the card check process is ripe for abuse and places pressure on workers as unions seek to persuade employees to sign the documents. Unions counter that workers are voicing their will.

But Ford has a voluntary, universal agreement with the United Auto Workers to use the card check method to achieve certification.

After losing in her effort this week to block Ford from using the card-check process for the project in West Tennessee, she sat on the sidelines rather than participate in the 90-3 Senate vote in favor of the project.

Smith said she is now working with an attorney on legislation to offer in January. It would restrict the state from future companies reaping state economic incentives from using the card check process. But she agreed it wouldn't apply retroactively to Ford.

Lee, who publicly came out in 2019 to urge Chattanooga Volkswagen workers to reject a second UAW secret-ballot certification election, told reporters in response to questions Wednesday he didn't push for a secret-ballot vote for the upcoming Ford plant.

"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."

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said in a state Capitol interview on Wednesday that he expects the issue about union certification to resurface when lawmakers return for their regular session in the coming year.

"I think there'll be some discussion about that when we come back in January - if there is any role that the state has in that or is that simply something left to the business itself as to decide whether they use card check or use secret ballot," Watson said. "Obviously, as something to be consistent even at Volkswagen, we're in favor of a secret ballot for unionization."

But he noted administration officials testified earlier this week before his committee that Ford's agreement with the UAW calls for the card check process.

"How the state can play in that is yet to be determined," Watson said. "We raised the issue because Tennessee is a right-to-work state, and we'll probably soon ingrain that in our Constitution as a right-to-work state. And we just need to have that conversation and see how that goes. Companies do have a right to unionize, employees do have a right to do that. We just want to ensure that it is a fair process."

Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, opposed changing the union certification process and voted against Smith's bill.

"I was very pleased that the efforts to minimize the impact of unions failed. This is a new day, a new age, and one thing we want to see is the middle class of Tennessee the dominant force going forward," Hakeem said earlier this week in a phone interview. "The involvement of unions in my view expands the impact that union wages can have on individuals within the state of Tennessee [and] will expand the middle class in the state."

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