Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander on Preserving the Option for States to Pass Right-to-Work Laws

Posted on January 22, 2009

The DeMint amendment would take away from States the right to decide whether they want to be a right-to-work State or a state that allows for an agency shop or a union shop. Now, on this very Senate floor, in 1947, after World War II, Mr. Conservative, Robert A. Taft, the leader of the Republicans, stood before the American people and said the law that was passed in 1935 -- the National Labor Relations Act -- was wrong because it took away from States the right to make that decision, and there was a tumultuous argument on the Senate floor. Section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act was passed, and it gave the States the right to decide whether an employee would have to pay union dues or join a union in order to have a job. Since then, 22 States, including the State of Tennessee, have decided, yes; we want to be a right-to-work State under the principles supported by the distinguished Senator from South Carolina, but he wants to make that a national law. I don't trust Washington on this issue. What do you suppose would happen in the Senate if today we voted about whether to have a national right-to-work law or a national agency shop or a union shop? I think I know what the result would be, and I know what would happen. Thirty years ago I was the Governor of Tennessee and we were the third poorest State and we had no auto jobs. Nissan wanted to come somewhere in the United States, and they chose Tennessee because we had a right-to-work law. Tennessee had the right to make that decision, even though other States chose not to have a right-to-work law. Then Saturn built a plant, and the Saturn employees chose to belong to the UAW and the Nissan employees said, no; we don't want to be in a union. Since that time, 13 major companies have come to the States that have right-to-work laws, including South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. If we let the prevailing Washington view decide whether a State should have a right-to-work, union shop, open shop, or agency shop law, we wouldn't have had that advantage, and we might not even have had an auto industry in the United States today. That competition between the states brought the companies that came here, hired American workers, built cars in our country, and now build half of our cars. These companies are providing the competition that will help the Detroit part of our industry survive, I think, more so than Government bailouts. So I say to my Republican colleagues especially, be careful what you ask for. Do you want to ask the Congress to vote on whether States have the right to choose a right-to-work law? I do not. I don't think you get any smarter about that issue by coming to Washington, DC. Democratic and Republican Governors and legislatures in Tennessee for a long time have thought we were perfectly capable of making that decision. So I would urge my colleagues to say Robert Taft was right in 1947 and 1948. We don't want Washington telling Tennessee, North Carolina, Minnesota, or Maryland what their labor laws ought to be. Let Tennessee decide whether it wants a right-to-work law. I can think of nothing more fundamental to the prosperity of my State than preserving the principle that States have the option to decide whether or not to have a right-to-work law. So I respectfully oppose the DeMint amendment. Madam President, if I were speaking in Tennessee, I would give the Senator from South Carolina an A-plus for his statement because it is exactly the law I want Tennessee to have. But what we are talking about here today is whether we want Washington to tell each State whether it can have a right-to-work law or agency shop or a union shop law. If Washington were to do that, Tennessee would not have a right-to-work law. We would not have permission to do that. We would not have an auto industry which is one-third of all of our manufacturing jobs. So I want my Republican colleagues, if I may say so, to be very careful here. Do we really want Washington telling us that the principle is they are going to say whether we can have a right-to-work law? I don't want them telling me that. When I was Governor of Tennessee -- and I see the former Governor of Missouri here -- nothing used to make me madder, to be blunt about it, than some Washington Congressman or Senator holding a press conference and telling me what to do because usually they tell me what to do and not send the money, and then I would have to send the money on to the mayor to raise taxes or lower taxes. I would have to do something myself. We in the state are perfectly capable of deciding whether we need a right-to-work law. Last year, the Senator from New Jersey was trying to ship New Jersey's laws to Tennessee with a national law. I cannot stand up and say we want a national right-to-work law and then argue against having New Jersey's laws in Tennessee, for States and counties that don't want those laws. So we want to fit those laws to our own circumstances. I greatly respect my colleague and friend, the Senator from South Carolina. On principle, he is right. There is another principle -- federalism -- that we can decide for ourselves. We would undermine that principle. I urge my colleagues to vote against the DeMint amendment.