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Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander on the NRLB’s Attack on the Right To Work Law

Monday, May 9, 2011
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HH: In 2009, Boeing, one of the great names in American business, decided they needed to build a new plant to meet the demand for its new 787 Dreamliner. And after extensive negotiations, consultations, talking with their union, with their management, with various states, they settled on North Charleston, South Carolina. And it was going to be a great plant opening up there in July. But then last week, actually two weeks ago now, the National Labor Relations Board brought a complaint against Boeing, alleging that the opening of these great jobs and great wages plant in North Charleston violated the labor law of the United States. To discuss this outrageous and unprecedented claim is United States Senator Lamar Alexander from the great state of Tennessee, not South Carolina. Senator Alexander, always a pleasure, thanks for joining me.

LA: Thank you, Hugh, thanks for inviting me.

HH: what is your reaction to this entire fiasco, actually?

LA: Well, my reaction is this is not about South Carolina. This is about the whole country and jobs, meaning if we want to cause companies to make in the United States what we sell in the United States, the worst thing we could do is to repeal the right to work laws in 22 states, which in effect, this National Labor Relations Board action would do if the administrative judge agrees with the NLRB.

HH: Were you surprised? Have you ever encountered anything like this, Senator Alexander?

LA: I really haven’t. I mean, I’ve been interested in the right to work law for a long time, because when I was governor of Tennessee, we had no auto jobs, and we began to recruit auto jobs. And one of our great advantages was not just being in the center of the country, but being a right to work state. And all the states north of us were not. What that meant was that you could join a union, but you didn’t have to join a union to get a job. And so we increasingly, over the last thirty years, in order to make cars and trucks in the United States competitively, we’ve had all sorts of companies, General Motors, Nissan, many others, move into the southeastern United States, and they’ve been able to compete very well. And that’s what Boeing has been trying to do. They wanted to expand a plant in South Carolina. And the NLRB’s saying no you can’t, because it’s a non-union state.

HH: Now Senator Alexander, how many jobs are we talking about? And these are great jobs, by the way. These are not some sort of temporary deal. These are, you know, aircraft production jobs.

LA: Well, you’re right about that. It’s a billion dollars already spent in South Carolina to build this new plant, to build these huge Dreamliners, they call them. There are 1,200 construction jobs already. And I think it’s a couple of thousand jobs over the long haul. But when we’re talking about jobs, it’s not that jobs are being moved from Washington State, which is union, to South Carolina. Boeing’s also added 2,000 jobs in Washington State. So it’s not a matter of moving jobs from Washington to South Carolina. It’s a matter of a company looking around the country and saying where can I make airplanes in a competitive way, because I have to sell them everywhere in the world.

HH: Now Senator Alexander, some of the National Labor Relation Board’s appointees, or proposed appointees by President Obama, have stirred a lot of controversy because of concern over their ideology. Is that what we see at play here?

LA: Well, one of the board members was appointed by recess appointment. That means the President appointed him when we weren’t in sessions. And his name is Becker, and the reason he did that was because the Senate would never have confirmed him, because that appointee, in his writings, has suggested that he would be willing by administrative order to abolish the secret ballot in union elections. Now if we abolish the secret ballot in union elections, that should only be done by law. Of if we change the right to work law in this country, that should only be done by the Congress. What we have here is the Obama administration administrative appointees changing the law by administrative action rather than by people who are elected.

HH: What are you hearing from the administration, Senator Alexander, because it seems to me this is a nightmare for the President, the White House, and his political campaign? Their appointees are trying to kill jobs? I don’t see that working for them.

LA: Well, I hope it is a nightmare for them, and for that reason, I hope they stop it. But right now, what I would say to my constituents in Tennessee, and what we would say in 22 other states, is this administration is in effect repealing the right to work law that since 1947, you’ve had a right to do. And in our state, we know that the reason we’ve gone from having almost no auto jobs thirty years ago to today, one-third of our manufacturing jobs are auto jobs, the right to work job in Tennessee is one big reason Nissan, General Motors, Volkswagen, and hundreds of suppliers are in our state instead of a state where they’d be less competitive.

HH: Senator Alexander, will you explain a little bit again what a right to work state means in terms of how it actually functions?

LA: Well, right to work means that if you live, if you work in Tennessee in an auto plant, you’ve got a right to join a union. You don’t have to join the union to get a job. You don’t have to pay dues to get a job. You have a right to join a union or not join the union. And a state that doesn’t have a right to work law, you could have a collective bargaining agreement that said you’ve got to join a union to work there.

HH: And so in terms of what actually happens on the ground, because I’m talking to Senator Alexander, but he served two terms as governor of Tennessee as well as secretary of education, so he knows of which he speaks, what kind of result actually happens in the plants when you’ve got that option of not paying over the dues to the big union shop steward?

LA: Well, let’s take a Tennessee example. For 25 years, we had the Saturn plant, the General Motors plant which was a partnership between General Motors and the United Auto Workers operating about 40 miles away from the Nissan plant, which is non-union, which that meant that the union was an intermediary between the employees and the management. For whatever reason, after 25 years, the Nissan plant, the non-union plant, has been the most efficient auto plant in North America, and Nissan’s expanding it, and it’s now going to make 85% of what it sells in the United States in the United States. The Saturn plant was closed last year by General Motors, and it never made a profit.

HH: Now I’ve got to ask you in terms of whether or not President Obama or Vice President Biden have reached out to you or the other members of the Senate leadership to say don’t worry, we’ll fix this. Have you heard anything about getting the Boeing plant back on track from them?

LA: I haven’t heard a word, but Senator Graham and Senator DeMint of South Carolina are up in arms about this. They and I are co-sponsoring legislation not to change the right to work law, not to protect…not to make a state that doesn’t have one have one, just to keep the right of the 22 states that have one to do it, the current law. And Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina will be in Washington tomorrow at a press conference with Senators Graham, DeMint and me, and she’s going to talk about the effect of this decision on jobs in South Carolina. I’m going to talk about it on the effect of this decision, if it should prevail, on jobs everywhere in America.

HH: Has it begun to get traction in the public consciousness, yet? I wrote a column about it for the Examiner today, but it’s still a little inside baseball for people.

LA: It is a little inside baseball, and I had someone in Tennessee this weekend say why aren’t more people outraged by this? I think they will be, because it’s not just the auto industry. I mean, the right to work law is an essential part of the labor relations environment in any state. It doesn’t mean a labor union, I mean, a worker in an auto plant at Nissan is making a lot less money than some other worker. It just means that that worker chooses to work in an environment where he or she is not represented by a union. And I can guarantee you that that environment is very attractive for manufacturers who are desperately trying to be very competitive in this world marketplace we live in today. If we don’t have right to work laws, those jobs are going to be in Mexico.

HH: Senator Lamar Alexander of the great state of Tennessee, thanks for joining us. Good luck at the press conference tomorrow. If you want to read my column, America, it’s linked at Hughhewitt.com or at the Washington Examiner, www.washingtonexaminer.com.

End of interview.

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