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Corporations that voluntarily recognize unions to be denied state money under new bill

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — As some Alabama leaders continue their push against unionization efforts across the state, several state lawmakers have signed onto a bill that would further limit the manner in which a company’s workforce could form a union.

Sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, Senate Bill 231 would make companies ineligible for state economic incentive dollars were they to voluntarily recognize a union that has reached majority support among its employees.

Sen. Arthur Orr has represented Morgan, Limestone and Madison counties in the Alabama Senate since 2006.

A union can be recognized in several ways. A workforce can reach 30% union support and call for an election to be held, or instead can reach majority union support, upon which an employer can voluntarily recognize the union, or call for an election to be held.

Under Orr’s bill, to remain eligible for economic incentives, employers would be prohibited from voluntarily recognizing a union, and instead be required to opt for a secret ballot election to be held when a majority of its workforce supports unionization. 

Were a company to have already received economic incentive dollars and still opted to voluntarily recognize a union instead of calling for a secret ballot election, they would be required to pay the state back in full.

The rule would apply to incentive deals brokered between the state and a company after Jan. 1, 2025.

Orr told Alabama Daily News on Tuesday that the bill was modeled after a piece of legislation adopted by lawmakers in Georgia, and that the intent behind the proposal was to minimize pressure on workers from either supporting or opposing unionization.

“My understanding is that many times in that environment when there’s an organizing effort happening, there’s a lot of cajoling, influencing, a lot of things going on from the organizers… and perhaps it could be happening from the company side,” Orr said. 

“The best antidote to that is having the secret ballot election, and letting the employees decide in that environment which path they want to take, and not have employees be browbeat, ostracized, humiliated or whatever for not being on one side or the other.”

Orr’s bill comes in the wake of Alabama autoworkers’ recent efforts to unionize the Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Plant in Montgomery and the Mercedes-Benz Plant near Tuscaloosa, both of which have seen significant progress this year.

Those unionization efforts have been spearheaded by the Detroit-based United Auto Workers union, much to the ire of Gov. Kay Ivey and Alabama’s business community, both of whom say unionization would pose a threat to Alabama’s economic success by deterring investment from companies drawn to the state for its cheap labor.

“You read about the targeting of Alabama by union organizers, so if that’s to happen, we want elections held, and we want them held with secret ballots,” Orr said.

“If this organizing effort is going to proceed, those are requests that the state would have of companies receiving the benefits of taxpayer incentives.”

The Georgia bill passed the Legislature there last week. Union leaders and Democrats argue the bill violates 1935’s National Labor Relations Act, which governs union organizing, and will be challenged in court, The Associated Press reported. A similar bill was approved in Tennessee last year and the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council is promoting the proposal, the AP reported.

Five other Alabama senators have signed onto the bill as co-sponsors, including Sen. Gerald Allen, R-Tuscaloosa, who told ADN Tuesday that he saw the bill as a means to protect workers from employer retaliation.

“Each and every company in Alabama who invests in new industry, with local and state dollars, wants to be assured that their investment will be sustainable in recruiting good, high quality workers and salaries,” Allen told ADN. 

“A new corporation who chooses to come to our state expects to be protected. In the occasion where employees want to form their own union, without the fear of losing incentives, (they) must be given the right to do so. While voting on whether to form a union or not, each employee’s vote must be kept private without fear of retaliation from the workplace.”

As union organizing continues to increase across the country, so too have instances of employers retaliating against their employees for unionization efforts. In 2022, employers were charged with violating federal labor law in 41.5% of all union election campaigns held that year, according to NLRB data analyzed by the Economic Policy Institute.

Among the most recent of such charges came from Alabama Mercedes workers themselves, who on Tuesday, announced that they had filed multiple federal charges with the NLRB for what they called Mercedes’ “aggressive and illegal union-busting.”

In the suit, Mercedes workers say several employees had been fired in retaliation for their efforts to unionize the west Alabama automaking plant, such as in the case of Al Ezell, who works in the facility’s battery plant and has been an outspoken supporter of unionization.

In a press release, Ezell, who was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, said he had been given permission to be in possession of his phone on the factory floor so that he could be reached by his doctor.

“Management called me into the office to discipline me for having my phone on the floor; my manager looked me in the face and told me she didn’t care that I have cancer or that I had permission, she was going to enforce the company’s zero tolerance policy,” Ezell said. 

“We’ve never had a zero-tolerance policy for having a phone on the floor. Management is just trying to scare us, but we won’t back down.”

Orr’s bill is set to first be heard in the Fiscal Responsibility and Economic Development Committee, a date for which has yet to be scheduled.

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