Monday, April 8, 2024

‘Economic development’ is another way to say ‘cheap labor’

  There’s a lot that can get an Alabama politician mad.

  Black history lessons. Voting assistance. Acknowledging the danger of firearms.

  But nothing, and I mean nothing, sets officials off like a worker who lacks an attitude of gratitude.

  In his first term, former Gov. Robert Bentley touted the arrival of Golden Dragon Copper Plant in Wilcox County. He participated in the groundbreaking for the factory and featured it in his 2014 re-election campaign.

  But when workers concerned about safety at the plant organized a union, Bentley intervened on the side of management. He sent a letter to Golden Dragon employees telling them that the company would “respond and address your concerns in an open way when they arise.” (The plant voted for the union.)

  Or just look at the panic attack over the union drives at Mercedes-Benz and Hyundai plants in Vance and outside Montgomery.

  A group of adults saw their paychecks eroding. They decided that they needed to advocate for their well-being and not trust the good will of their employers. And they concluded the best vehicle for that was a union.

  Some of their colleagues may disagree. But you can see a union as a reasonable choice by rational people.

  Or you can insist, as Gov. Kay Ivey has, that these Alabama workers are puppets of an “out-of-state interest group” that wants to take away “hope and prosperity from our folks.” (Remember: Unions with addresses in Michigan are “out-of-state interest groups;” foreign corporations that receive taxpayer money slated for schools and services are “great Alabama employers.”)

  Or you can sponsor a bill that would effectively force an employer to prolong labor strife.

  Or you can claim that a worker trying to make a decent wage on her own terms “places our state’s main economic driver in the crosshairs,” as Alabama Secretary of Commerce Ellen McNair did.

  This outrage makes a certain sense if you understand how Goat Hill views the economy.

  The halls of our Statehouse are filled with people who see large businesses not as organizations trying to make money; not as companies focused on their stock price, but as magical creatures benevolently spreading employment wherever they go.

  Hence, we must use public revenue to build elaborate fairy houses to attract them to Alabama.

  Never mind that the jobs created by these incentives are a fraction of the overall employment in the state. Or that these incentives can put older businesses in the state at a disadvantage. If a worker has a clear-eyed view of a company’s motives and starts talking about a union – well, that’s like denying the power of magic.

  And it imperils the only bait we have for these sprites of capitalism.

  Cheap labor.

  Why do you think Mercedes, Hyundai, and Golden Dragon came here in the first place?

  Our schools? The state’s constitutional refusal to let local communities provide adequate funding for education undermines our hardworking teachers. A big reason that we’re usually near the bottom of the National Assessment of Education Progress is a lack of resources caused by Jim Crow-era laws that prevent county governments from fairly taxing their assets.

  Our infrastructure? Road resurfacing had to get on a 60-year cycle for lawmakers to approve a modest increase in the gasoline tax, which funds road work. There was griping about it for years afterward. Our efforts to expand broadband leave much to be desired.

  Taxes? Well, yeah, if the state is telling a company they won’t have to pay any. But their workers will soon learn Alabama charges a fee for feeding their families.

  For all the talk about incentives, deferments, and site preparation, corporations come to Alabama for one reason: to pay workers less than they make elsewhere. Auto workers in this state make less than workers nationwide and considerably less than unionized workers around Detroit.

  That’s “economic development” in Alabama: helping huge companies shake as much as they can out of their workers at the lowest cost possible.

  The autoworkers considering unions understand this dynamic better than our leaders do. Corporations don’t come to Alabama to elevate the state. They want to take advantage of our poverty.

  They’re trying to get the best deal they possibly can.

  And so are the people trying to come together in unions.

  At a very basic level, unionizing is negotiating. Staking a position. Listening for a counteroffer. Coming to an agreement. It should be familiar to business people who pride themselves on dealmaking.

  But Ivey and other officials will not even acknowledge the autoworkers’ concerns. The Business Council of Alabama tells them that trying to protect pay and benefits could cause “strained relationships between labor and management.”

  They want a workforce that’s meek and silent. A workforce that will take the first offer from employers more interested in stock prices than grocery bills. A workforce that won’t cause trouble when jobs get cut and wages stagnate.

  Because that’s all our leaders can offer to an out-of-state business. When workers demand to be paid their worth, Alabama’s economic model falls apart.

  About the author: Brian Lyman is the editor of Alabama Reflector. He has covered Alabama politics since 2006 and worked at the Montgomery Advertiser, the Press-Register, and The Anniston Star. His work has won awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors, the Alabama Press Association, and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights. He lives in Auburn with his wife, Julie, and their three children.

  This article was published by Alabama Reflector.

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