Tennessee legislature OKs $884M incentive package for Ford project

Jordyn Grzelewski
The Detroit News

The Tennessee General Assembly on Wednesday signed off on $884 million in incentives for the $5.6 billion electric-vehicle assembly, battery manufacturing and supplier campus Ford Motor Co. and its joint-venture partner, SK Innovation, plan to build in the state.

Two pieces of legislation tied to the project largely sailed through committee hearings and floor votes over the course of a three-day special session called by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee. Both bills — one establishing an 11-member regional authority to oversee the project site in west Tennessee and the other appropriating $500 million in direct grants plus additional funding for initiatives such as infrastructure improvements and workforce development — passed overwhelmingly in both chambers of the legislature after debate led to some minor modifications.

“We thank the State of Tennessee for its partnership and support as we work together to create 6,000 west Tennessee jobs and build Blue Oval City,” Lisa Drake, Ford North America chief operating officer, said in a statement Wednesday. “As we embark on this journey, Ford will be a good neighbor and work hard to enrich and give back to the communities we are joining. We look forward to working together to create this future.”

In a statement, Lee thanked the legislature and hailed what he described as the single largest investment in the state's history as "a tremendous win for rural Tennessee."

Legislators overwhelmingly voiced support for the project, characterizing it as a transformational opportunity for rural west Tennessee. The special session largely steered clear of labor issues experts have said are likely to rise to the forefront in the run-up to the slated launch of production in 2025.

Still, anti-union sentiments were voiced more than once, and outside interest groups began releasing public statements and ads arguing against unionization of the plants. 

GOP state Reps. Scott Cepicky and Robin Smith each attempted to amend the legislation to require that any unionization drive at the plants be conducted via secret-ballot voting, but the language did not end up in the final package. Cepicky represents Maury County, where General Motors Co. has a large presence with a unionized workforce, and Smith represents a district in the Chattanooga area, where the United Auto Workers repeatedly has failed to organize workers at a Volkswagen AG plant.

“After spending several days on the phone with some of our manufacturing leaders and large employers in my district that are not automotive manufacturing folks, they have a concern about protecting our right-to-work status and some of the things that are involved," Smith said. 

GOP State Rep. William Lamberth, who sponsored the legislation, said he "definitely would pledge my support for something like that down the road," but did not think it would be "appropriate" to include in the Ford legislation: "That is a discussion I think we should have in sessions to come, on a statewide application."

Also on Wednesday, the anti-union Center for Union Facts took out a full-page ad in The Tennesseean, Nashville's daily newspaper, criticizing Ford and the UAW, according to a reporter for the paper who shared the ad on Twitter. 

And on Tuesday, the National Right to Work Committee released an open letter calling on Lee to "ensure" that any state incentives for the project "do not subsidize coercive unionism that undermines the worker freedom that Tennessee's Right to Work law stands for."

"This must include ensuring that any decision by workers at the new facility regarding whether or not to affiliate with the United Autoworkers (UAW) union or other labor organization be made with the full protections of a secret ballot election, and without any backroom deal between Ford and union officials over the conditions of a unionization drive," wrote organization president Mark Mix.

In response, the UAW referred The Detroit News to previous statements union leaders have made, signaling their support for the project but indicating it's too early to discuss organizing workers at plants that do not yet exist.

Tennessee is a right-to-work state, meaning workers there can't be required to join a union as a condition of employment.

Ford executives have said they will leave it up to workers to decide if they wish to organize.

Still, pointing to previous failed attempts by the UAW to organize automotive plants in the South in the midst of fierce opposition from anti-union activists and GOP leaders, experts say the union could face challenges at the new Ford-SK plants.


Twitter: @JGrzelewski