Southern discomfort: Governors should be wary to discourage unionization

In an unusual joint statement, the Republican governors of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Tennessee assailed the United Auto Workers union as it proceeds with a unionization vote at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga. In their missive, the state officials contend that the unionization effort would imperil jobs and obliquely suggest unionized plants will shutter.

The six governors skirt close to the line of outright intimidation against workers who might seek to unionize. Plenty of political figures encourage or discourage constituents from labor organizing, and in fact some Democratic politicians have specifically supported UAW’s efforts in the South and elsewhere. Yet these governors are warning darkly of specific potential consequences in a way that sounds like a threat.

Nonetheless, this conduct is within their legal rights; they’re not themselves the employers, and aren’t threatening any sort of concrete government action. Their warnings are an exercise of their free speech. That it’s legal, though, doesn’t make it appropriate.

These governors largely fancy themselves “right to work” champions, all-in on the idea that employees and employers should be free to make their own decisions without what they would call burdensome government regulation.

This mindset apparently doesn’t extend to the idea that workers should have the right to decide how they want to be organized at work, and if they desire a legally protected mediator between them and their employers. That has been federal law since 1935.

It’s really no surprise that this statement came from half a dozen governors at once. They know that the economic argument that they are more attractive to companies as generally unionized and anti-union jurisdictions only works when companies can easily shop around for the most favorable (and often most exploitation-friendly) sites.

In that context, the warnings that unionization itself might significantly jeopardize jobs has a ring of truth, though we’ll point out that layoffs happen with and without unions. If UAW organizing drives are successful across the South, though, that venue-shopping option increasingly disappears and the economic race to the bottom stops, which these governors don’t like.

In their statement, the state executives don’t try to hide the fact that one of the reasons they are so opposed to this organizing is out of simple personal political expediency.

They write that they have “serious reservations that the UAW leadership can represent our values. They proudly call themselves democratic socialists and seem more focused on helping President Joe Biden get reelected than on the autoworker jobs being cut,” a clear tell that their position is driven not just by general business concerns but the reality that UAW and large unions tend to lean Democratic.

Would the governors be so opposed were it not for the fact that they perceive the organizers as political rivals? We doubt it.

We are by no means endorsing the unionization effort itself or calling for certain outcomes, but we believe steadfastly that each group of workers can and should have the unabridged opportunity to select how they want to be represented before their management.

If the unionization efforts fail, then so be it. But the autoworkers should have the opportunity to make this selection without feeling like their state governors are breathing down their necks.