Wall Street Journal: Op-Ed by Sen. Alexander: The White House vs. Boeing: A Tennessee Tale

Our auto industry took off because workers could choose whether or not to join a union.

Posted on April 26, 2011

The National Labor Relations Board has moved to stop Boeing from building airplanes at a nonunion plant in South Carolina, suggesting that a unionized American company cannot expand its operations into one of the 22 states with right-to-work laws, which protect a worker's right to join or not join a union. (New Hampshire's legislature has just approved its becoming the 23rd.)

This reminds me of a White House state dinner in February 1979, when I was governor of Tennessee. President Jimmy Carter said, "Governors, go to Japan. Persuade them to make here what they sell here."

"Make here what they sell here" was then the union battle cry, part of an effort to slow the tide of Japanese cars and trucks entering the U.S. market.

Off I flew to Tokyo to meet with Nissan executives who were deciding where to put their first U.S. manufacturing plant. I carried with me a photograph taken at night from a satellite showing the country at night with all its lights on.

"Where is Tennessee?" the executives asked. "Right in the middle of the lights," I answered, pointing out that locating a plant in the population center reduces the cost of transporting cars to customers. That center had migrated south from the Midwest, where most U.S. auto plants were, to Kentucky and Tennessee.

Then the Japanese examined a second consideration: Tennessee has a right-to-work law and Kentucky does not. This meant that in Kentucky workers would have to join the United Auto Workers union. Workers in Tennessee had a choice.

In 1980 Nissan chose Tennessee, a state with almost no auto jobs. Today auto assembly plants and suppliers provide one-third of our state's manufacturing jobs. Tennessee is the home for production of the Leaf, Nissan's all-electric vehicle, and the batteries that power it. Recently Nissan announced that 85% of the cars and trucks it sells in the U.S. will be made in the U.S.— making it one of the largest "American" auto companies and nearly fulfilling Mr. Carter's request of 30 years ago.

But now unions want to make it illegal for a company that has experienced repeated strikes to move production to a state with a right-to-work law. What would this mean for the future of American auto jobs? Jobs would flee overseas as manufacturers look for a competitive environment in which to make and sell cars around the world.

It's happened before. David Halberstam's 1986 book, "The Reckoning"—about the decline of the domestic American auto industry—tells the story. Halberstam quotes American Motors President George Romney, who criticized the "shared monopoly" consisting of the Big Three Detroit auto manufacturers and the UAW. "There is nothing more vulnerable than entrenched success," Romney warned. Detroit ignored upstarts like Nissan who in the 1960s began selling funny little cars to American consumers. We all know what happened to employment in the Big Three companies.

Even when Detroit sought greener pastures in a right-to-work state, its "partnership" with the United Auto Workers could not compete. In 1985, General Motors located its $5 billion Saturn plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., 40 miles from Nissan, hoping side-by-side competition would help the Americans beat the Japanese. After 25 years, nonunion Nissan operated the most efficient auto plant in North America. The Saturn/UAW partnership never made a profit. GM closed Saturn last year.

Nissan's success is one reason why Volkswagen recently located in Chattanooga, and why Honda, Toyota, BMW, Kia, Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai and thousands of suppliers have chosen southeastern right-to-work states for their plants. Under right-to-work laws, employees may join unions, but mostly they have declined. Three times workers at the Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tenn., rejected organizing themselves like Saturn employees a few miles away.

Our goal should be to make it easier and cheaper to create private-sector jobs in this country. Giving workers the right to join or not to join a union helps to create a competitive environment in which more manufacturers like Nissan can make here 85% of what they sell here.