Alexander: The President's Time Fighting the Right-to-Work Law in Michigan "Would Have Been Better Spent Working on the Fiscal Cliff"

By:  Lamar Alexander
Date: Dec. 12, 2012
Location: Washington, DC

"I thought the campaign was over, but the President was in Michigan yesterday on what looked like a campaign event. It seems to me, that time would have been better spent here in Washington, D.C. working on the fiscal cliff, but he was in Michigan. By my way of thinking, he was doing two things: First, he was encouraging the people of Michigan to continue to deny working people the right to get or keep a job without having to pay union dues; and, second, to continue to perpetuate a system that will keep our auto industry from being able to compete in the world marketplace.

"Michigan is on the verge of becoming the 24th right-to-work State in the United States. The state Senate and the House each passed separate bills in Michigan last week. They passed a final bill today, and I understand the Governor is about to consider whether to sign it. This is what it will do:

"It will ensure that employees in Michigan do not have to pay union dues in order to get or keep a job.

"The President said yesterday 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. So if Michigan goes the way of the right-to-work law, 24 States have made that decision.

"The President also 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 upon my life's experience. Thirty years ago, Tennessee was the third poorest State. I was looking around for a way to increase family incomes and to attract new jobs. So I went off to Japan to recruit Nissan. We had virtually no auto jobs in Tennessee at the time. They took a look at a map of the United States at night with the lights on, showing that most of the people lived in the east. While most of the people lived in the east, 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 Tennessee and Kentucky were more in the center of the market than Michigan or other states where autos had normally been manufactured. 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 it is in 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, attracted by, among other things, our right-to-work law? 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. Without that competitive environment, my guess is that most of those cars would be made in Mexico or some other place around the world.

"If you don't believe me, read David Halberstam's work in 1986, a book called "The Reckoning,' about the American auto industry. In Mr. Halberstam's words, the big three carmakers and the United Auto Workers had enjoyed setting wages, setting prices, and ultimately became uncompetitive. They laughed at these little Datsuns that Nissan was selling on the west coast and these little Beetles that Volkswagen was selling in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. They ignored the warning of Mitt Romney's father, George Romney, the president of the American Motors Corporation, who said there is nothing more vulnerable than entrenched success. He said that in the 1960s. And what happened? The American automobile industry nearly collapsed.

"I believe that what saved the 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. What President Carter said to me when I was Governor of Tennessee was: "Governors, go to Japan, persuade them to make in the United States what they want to sell in the United States.' They did that and they did well. In fact, the Nissan plant has, for year in and year out, been the most efficient and successful auto plant in North America.

"The right-to-work law has been about jobs and it has made a difference in Tennessee. I am not entirely sure why Michigan has had a difficult time with its economy lately, but perhaps not being a right-to-work state is one reason. …I have literally grown up with [the law]. I remember, as a 7-year-old, Senator Taft arguing the Taft-Hartley Act, or at least I heard my parents talk about it. Section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act gave States the right to say that workers in their State did not have to pay union dues to get or keep a job.

"And I well remember Everett Dirksen's arguments on the Senate floor in the mid-1960s. President Johnson, at the behest of union leaders, wanted to repeal Section 14(b). Dirksen rose up against it. He said: "It is the right of the State to do it if it so desires; if the Governor signs the bill, or if they override the Governor's veto. That should be their prerogative in a country where the States and those who represented the States in the Constitutional Convention in 1787 were safeguarded by that residual clause in the Constitution.'

"The right of States to prohibit compulsory union membership has been challenged repeatedly by union officials. But that right has been upheld consistently by the judiciary, including the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Finally, as a Tennessean, I could be upset that Indiana, and now it appears Michigan, have adopted right-to-work laws. That puts Tennessee at less of a competitive advantage. I believe in States rights. I believe States have the right to be wrong as well as the right to be right. With all these Midwestern States having the right to be wrong and not having right-to-work laws, we benefited enormously in our State by the arrival of the auto industries and other manufacturers.

"But for our country to exist over the next 20 or 30 years in a very competitive world, where jobs can be anywhere, where things 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, competitive country.

"It has everything to do with economics, and I wish the President yesterday had spent his time on the fiscal cliff instead of going to Michigan and arguing in favor of denying workers their right get or keep a job without having to pay union dues, and denying efforts to keep our American automobile industry as competitive as it needs to be in the world marketplace."