Stockard on the Stump: UAW official has no doubt Ford plant will be union facility

‘I can say with some certainty it will be a union facility’

October 8, 2021 6:00 am
Gov. Bill Lee, third from right, with Ford Motor Co. CEO, to his right, and Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development Bob Rolfe, to Ford's right, at Monday's announcement of the Ford Blue Oval Campus. (Photo: Gov. Bill Lee official Facebook page)

Outgoing Commissioner of Economic and Community Development Bob Rolfe, second from left, with Gov. Bill Lee and representatives of Ford Motor Co. and SK Innovation. (Photo: Gov. Bill Lee official Facebook page)

In the last two weeks, numerous news stories have speculated on whether the Ford electric truck plant targeted for the Memphis Regional Megasite will be a union shop.

It’s a big deal in a right to work state with anti-union sentiment among the controlling Republican Party. Tennessee’s three automakers are split, with Nissan and Volkswagen making cars in non-union plants and General Motors working in a union facility.

The day of the state’s big announcement in Memphis, the Tennessee Lookout talked to United Auto Workers’ Nashville President C.L. Smith, who confirmed the union would organize at the megasite location to be called Blue Oval City. 

Things are a little hazier now, but Smith stands by his original comments.

“I can say with some certainty it will be a union facility,” Smith said this week. 

Smith noted he understands Tennessee is a right to work state, which means employees can’t be forced to join a union yet still enjoy the wages and benefits unions negotiate. 

Whether employees join the union will be up to them. But, based on Ford’s contractual obligations with the UAW, he noted the union would be in the facility and workers would be “strongly encouraged” to join because it would be in their best interests for wages, benefits and worker safety.

Smith confirmed two weeks ago that UAW President Ray Curry had said the facility would be a union plant. Curry hedged a bit, though, at the big announcement that Ford and SK Innovation of South Korea would be partnering for a $5.8 billion investment creating 5,800 jobs in Haywood County.

Curry said in a statement, “The UAW looks forward to continuing our long-time partnership with Ford as consumers transition to make electric vehicles in the right way. The UAW has always taken a lead in manufacturing innovation with our employer partners. We look forward to reaching out and helping develop this new workforce to build these world class vehicles and battery components.”

Other UAW officials issued similar statements, saying the union looks forward to connecting with the Tennessee and Kentucky workforce where battery plants are planned and “being a partner in training and innovatively creating the gold standard for these future jobs in the EV automotive sector.”

Ford Chief Executive Officer Jim Farley told the Associated Press it will be up to the employees to decide on unionization. 

No doubt, that would be the case in Tennessee. In fact, it could be a case of stating the obvious.

Other reports note Ford’s policy is required under its contract to sit on the sidelines and let the UAW organize facilities by handing out cards to workers and more or less letting them vote on unionization. The UAW is hoping to latch on with new electric vehicle plants and find jobs for members as the industry shifts away from combustion-engine vehicles.

Similarly to Farley, Gov. Lee said last week that since Tennessee is a right to work state, then workers will “have the option as to their work environment” and that would be true for the Ford plant.

State Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Germantown Republican and attorney for Chicago-based Liberty Justice Center manages lawsuits against unions in other states without right to work laws. Kelsey sponsored the legislation designed to embed the right to work in Tennessee’s Constitution, arguing it is an “important civil right.” He has hailed the economic development announcement but clearly would oppose unionization.

Considering southwest Tennessee, mainly Shelby and Haywood counties, is bluer than most of Tennessee, a 51% union vote at Blue Oval City is more likely than, say, in Chattanooga or Rutherford County.  

For Smith, though, the answer is clear, because while he acknowledges Tennessee is an “anti-union state,” he also says matter of factly, “that Ford facility will be a union facility.”

Gov on education

Gov. Lee is set to make an announcement Friday morning dealing with education. Speculation centers on a listening tour on spending. Such a move could spawn changes to the state’s Basic Education Program, the formula that provides funds for Tennessee’s K-12 schools. The governor has placed more money in the budget annually nearly every year for education and teachers, though some have said a lot of the money for pay doesn’t wind up in teachers’ bank accounts.

A friend of “school choice,” which traditional educators despise, the governor is tied up in a lawsuit over his Education Savings Account program, which would provide qualifying parents in Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville Public Schools districts with state funds to attend private schools. The law passed narrowly in the House, then was challenged in the courts.

A Davidson County chancellor found it unconstitutional because it targeted only those two districts, a violation of the state’s Home Rule law. The Tennessee Supreme Court is set to rule on it after hearing arguments this year. 

What is an FSAG?

For the uninitiated, that’s the acronym for Gov. Lee’s committee overseeing federal COVID-19-related stimulus money. No, the SAG part is not a description of my gut, which is getting a little droopy (I’m blaming IPAs). It’s my attitude at the prospect of covering two to three weeks of special sessions (They’re set for Oct 18 and likely Oct. 27). Then again, as one friend said, the Legislature is keeping me in a job.

Anyway, the governor’s group of legislators, administrators and constitutional officers is getting ready to spend a boatload of federal money as $3.9 billion comes to the state and $2.28 billion goes directly to local governments. The money is being broken down into two installments.

The governor’s group is directing $1.35 billion to water and wastewater infrastructure, $500 million to broadband connectivity, $200 million to replace the state public health lab, $129 million to renovate local health departments, $110 million to bolster hospital staffs and $288 million to support tourism, agriculture, arts and culture and industries across the state.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Gov. Lee group without setting some money aside, so it still has $494 million sitting and waiting after the governor’s administration deferred spending on the Tennessee Housing Development Agency, public safety and crime reduction programs and Department of Health workforce interventions.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton pointed out during a Wednesday meeting that a number of home builders have gotten guaranteed tax credits to use THDA funds and if a certain deadline passes, those credits will disappear.

Comptroller Jason Mumpower, who serves on the THDA board of directors, concurred that construction of this affordable housing could transform people’s lives.

Ultimately, Finance and Administration Commissioner Butch Eley and Lee agreed to revisit THDA funding in November.

The question is: Why do they need to revisit when they have plenty of money?

Gov. Lee and some of the state’s Republican leaders have criticized the federal government’s largesse amid the COVID-19 pandemic, at least since President Biden took office.

Lt. Gov. McNally pointed out in the Wednesday meeting, “It appears we’re drowning in federal money.”

But nobody’s sending the money back to D.C., either.

And, get this, the state is planning to apply for funds through the Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund.

What, they hate money?

Typically, cities and counties jump at the chance to pad their coffers with state and federal funds, especially when few strings are attached. 

Some of Tennessee’s smaller towns might be asleep at the wheel, though, or maybe they aren’t sure how to log in to the state’s portal to qualify for the federal money. Those include Braden, Forest Hills, Gadsden, McEwen, Mitchellville, Normandy, Parrottsville, Philadelphia, Toone, Trimble and Viola.

Being technologically deficient is understandable. But you can always walk out on the street and find a 20-something to do the job.

Report: Kelsey probe continues

(My gosh, this is starting to turn into the Kelsey edition.) According to a report by The Dispatch, federal investigators are continuing to look into the congressional campaign finances of Sen. Kelsey. The guy just can’t seem to catch a break. He couldn’t buy a congressional seat, either, coming in fourth in the race five years ago.

The article turned up by the Tennessee Journal shows the feds talked to Matt Schlapp of the American Conservative Union, which is at the heart of a campaign finance complaint against Kelsey, a Republican.

The Tennessean reported four years ago that Kelsey’s Red State PAC donated money to state lawmakers, who then made contributions to his congressional campaign. The Tennessee Journal later learned that some legislators were questioned by the Department of Justice about those contributions.

In addition, Kelsey reportedly transferred more than $100,000 from his state account to a Standard Club PAC, run out of the swanky downtown Nashville restaurant frequented by lawmakers, to the American Conservative Union. That group then spent money on ads for Kelsey, independent campaign expenses.

Not long after all this went down, Kelsey married Amanda Bunning, the granddaughter of former U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning. She works for the Ingram Group’s Washington, D.C. office and was with the American Conservative Union, heading up congressional and legislative ratings as well as its candidate endorsements.

Why the tangled (alleged) web? Because it’s illegal to use state campaign funds for federal campaigns.

Kelsey has denied wrongdoing throughout this ordeal, saying everything was vetted by his counsel. But it won’t go away.

The Campaign Legal Center filed a Federal Election Commission complaint against Kelsey, and it’s still awaiting the outcome.

“A lot of times these complaints can take years,” said Brendan Quinn, spokesman for the Campaign Legal Center.

Quinn noted that the news report doesn’t confirm an investigation is being made into Kelsey, Schlapp or the American Conservative Union because his group hasn’t been told anything.

“We don’t even know if an official investigation is going on,” he said.

In The Dispatch report, though, Campaign Legal Center Chief of Staff Adav Noti called the Kelsey situation “a very serious violation.” He noted, “It’s not a ticky-tack or a technical issue.”

Kelsey was booted as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee after these allegations surfaced and for other nincompoopery. But now he chairs the Senate Education Committee, even though he is on a hot seat in his own Shelby County district, which is going through serious demographic changes. He barely beat political neophyte Gabby Salinas in the last election and could benefit from a redistricting plan that would place him in an area with more Republican voters.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally might have thought Kelsey had eased past the allegations when he named him education chairman. But if The Dispatch report shows us anything, the feds won’t quit until they get their man (or woman). Remember, they pushed until they got a jury to convict Democratic Sen. Katrina Robinson on four counts of fraud, two of which totaled less than $3,500. I’d hate to think my political career was going down the tubes for the price of a clunker.

Kelsey’s career is teetering, too, but for a few more bucks. He is from Germantown, after all.

Profiting from misery

Sen. Kelsey, less than two weeks after Collierville suffered its worst crime in history, took to Twitter to celebrate the “resilience” of the town’s people and its first responders for their response to a mass shooting at the Kroger there. 

The shameless plug in front of the grocery store where one woman was killed and more than a dozen were injured by a former vendor who worked there is coupled on Twitter with yet another shameless plug saying, “I’m proud of my A rating from the NRA for defending the 2nd Amendment. Check out the pro-gun bill I sponsored this year that will be law on Friday.”

The Twitter responses to Kelsey’s election stunt were not kind, most accusing him of using a community’s tragedy to try to win votes. It reminds me that someone once referred to Kelsey as the “stunt baby of Germantown” for yet another silly act he committed on the House floor.

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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.