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Corporate Power Has Long Dominated Alabama. Autoworkers May Change That.

The UAW’s fight to unionize autoworkers represents a larger struggle against the state’s corporate power structure.

People celebrate after the United Auto Workers (UAW) received enough votes to form a union at a UAW vote watch party on April 19, 2024, in Chattanooga, Tennessee

Last week, the United Auto Workers (UAW) notched a historic victory when workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, voted decisively to unionize. This is the first triumph in the UAW’s ambitious new campaign to organize over a dozen nonunion auto plants across the U.S., especially in the South.

Now the focus moves to Vance, Alabama, where 5,000 Mercedes-Benz workers will vote on a union in mid-May. The UAW also says that over 30 percent of autoworkers at the Hyundai plant in Montgomery, Alabama, have so far signed union cards.

The bosses of Alabama are waging a desperate anti-union blitz to prevent a UAW victory. At the statewide level, a key actor behind this is the Business Council of Alabama (BCA), composed of the state’s most powerful corporate interests. The BCA started an anti-UAW website and has been publishing anti-union op-eds while allying closely with state politicians, especially Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey.

The BCA is more than just a business group. A Truthout analysis found that it is a coordinating nexus for Alabama’s ultra-wealthy corporations whose owners and executives run the state. The small group of leaders who oversee the BCA’s day-to-day governance represent Alabama’s most powerful corporations, from its biggest utility company to its biggest health care provider and its biggest bank. Some of these BCA officers and executive committee members rake in tens of millions in CEO pay and represent corporations run by billionaires, all while the BCA tries to prevent autoworkers from simply having a union.

The BCA exerts influence through political and interpersonal networks, campaign donations, lobbying efforts, corporate philanthropy and schmoozy gatherings with politicians. Top elected officials, like Governor Ivey, are firmly in the BCA’s pocket. Alabama Sen. Katie Britt is the former CEO and president of the BCA.

In taking on the BCA and its union-busting campaign, autoworkers aren’t just fighting for themselves. They’re taking on the state’s organized ruling class — an interlocked web of powerful automakers, utilities, banks, and more — that has kept Alabama one of the poorest states in the U.S.

Alabama’s War on Workers

The BCA sees the autoworker union drive as an existential threat to its own class rule and its decades-long campaign to maintain Alabama as an anti-union fortress.

Corporate power has always formed and mobilized associations that unite bosses to fight the working class when it strikes or tries to unionize. The BCA was founded in 1985 to advance the interests of the state’s corporate class through a well-funded influence operation aimed at shaping legislation and politics.

The very corporate interests that want to stop Alabama workers from unionizing are also profiting from the high utility bills paid by autoworkers and their communities.

The BCA is Alabama’s “exclusive affiliate” with two powerful national corporate associations, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers, both committed to opposing unions and crushing pro-worker legislation.

Today, the BCA is the key vehicle through which the state’s ruling class — including its various metropolitan business groups and major corporations — coordinates political efforts to advance the generalized interests of capital in Alabama, such as preempting laws to raise the minimum wage.

The group’s anti-UAW website says the BCA is “conducting the Alabama Strong Campaign as an independent advocate for the collective business interests of the whole Alabama business community.”

The power and money behind the BCA rests with its board of directors, an interlocking network of 135 members who almost entirely represent Alabama corporations and business associations, including, as Jacobin’s Alex Press notes, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota and Honda.

Who Runs the Business Council of Alabama?

The BCA’s closer day-to-day governance is overseen by a smaller group of 15 board officers and executive committee members who represent some of the state’s most powerful corporations, which are also top donors to the BCA’s political action committee, ProgressPAC.

BCA chairman John Turner is the president and CEO of Regions Bank, by far the biggest bank in Alabama. Turner raked in over $38 million in total compensation over the past three years.

The most powerful force among the BCA leadership is Alabama Power, the state’s behemoth electric utility. Alabama Power’s former CEO took in over $20 million in total compensation from 2019 to 2021. Alabama Power is a subsidiary of Southern Company, one of the most powerful utility corporations in the nation, whose former CEO took in over $67 million from 2020 to 2022.

More than a quarter of the BCA’s executive leadership — 4 out of 15 members — have top leadership and governance positions with Alabama Power. BCA Executive Committee member Jeff Peoples is the chair and CEO of Alabama Power, while BCA First Vice Chairman Kevin Savoy, BCA Secretary Charisse Stokes and BCA Executive Committee member Angus Cooper III are all board directors of Alabama Power. Two members of BCA’s larger board, Bobbie Knight and Phillip Webb, are also Alabama Power directors.

Alabama Power runs the dirtiest power plant in the entire nation. Despite being one of the poorest U.S. states, Alabama has among the highest residential electricity bills in the nation. In other words, the very corporate interests that run the BCA and want to stop Alabama workers from unionizing are also profiting from the high utility bills paid by autoworkers and their communities.

The BCA also represents Alabama’s only billionaire, Jimmy Rane, the founder and CEO of Great Southern Wood Preserving, whose YellaWood lumber products are sold at Home Depot. The vice president of Great Southern Wood Preserving, Kevin Savoy, is the first vice chairman of the BCA.

Other BCA officers represent other heights of corporate power in Alabama: Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama, the largest health insurer in the state; Protective Life Corporation, a powerful financial services and insurance company; ProgressRail, a railroad supplies and services company that is a subsidiary of Caterpillar; and the Cooper Group, with extensive stevedoring and maritime holdings; and more.

Ivey’s Ties to the BCA

The BCA’s most powerful anti-union partner has been Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, who has unceasingly campaigned in strong opposition to autoworker unionization.

While she’s technically an elected official, Ivey should be understood as a direct arm of the BCA.

According to a Truthout analysis of campaign finance data from Follow the Money, seven of Ivey’s top dozen campaign donors from the 2021-2022 election cycle are tied to the BCA. Five of Ivey’s top dozen donors represent officers and executive committee members of the BCA or the BCA itself.

The BCA also gave Ivey another $155,000 combined in 2014 and 2018 and $10,000 more in March 2023, all through its ProgressPAC. In 2018, billionaire Jimmy Rane — again, the state’s only billionaire, whose company is represented in the BCA’s top leadership — was Ivey’s top donor with $300,000, and he gave her $100,000 in 2022.

Ivey refers to the UAW, a labor union that thousands of Alabama autoworkers support, as “special interests.” But she is in fact bankrolled by huge donations from big businesses. The BCA corporate network — combined with loads of right-wing dark money — is quite literally financing and propping up Ivey’s political career.

Moreover, former top BCA staffers help run Ivey’s administration. Ivey’s Deputy Chief of Staff Nathan Lindsay worked for the BCA for eight years, including as executive director of its political action committee. Ivey’s Director of Legislative Affairs Drew Harrell worked for three years at the BCA, including as vice president of government affairs and executive director of the BCA’s political action committee.

Ivey’s communications director from 2019 to 2021, Leah Garner, worked at the BCA from 2013 to 2019 as director of governmental affairs and advocacy. Brooks McClendon, Ivey’s other deputy chief of staff, worked five years for Manufacture Alabama, a manufacturing business association whose leadership includes Toyota and other BCA board members.

Ivey is also a regular at BCA awards ceremonies and speaking events. The BCA enjoys visits to the governor’s office.

BCA influence also stretches to the federal level: U.S. Sen. Katie Britt, who infamously bungled the GOP response to the 2024 State of the Union address, was the CEO and president of the BCA from January 2019 through June 2021. In 2020, Britt was compensated more than $440,000 by the BCA. Her husband, Wesley Britt, is a lobbyist with Fine Geddie, a powerful lobbying firm that was the second top donor ($740,000) to Kay Ivey in 2022 and has former BCA employees and advisers on staff and has sponsored BCA conferences.

Big Campaign Donations and Revolving Door Lobbyists

Other arms of the BCA influence operation include a well-funded political action committee (PAC) and a slew of revolving door lobbyists.

The BCA oversees ProgressPAC, which views elections as “a battle” for ensuring “a pro-business majority” in the state legislature. Through ProgressPAC, the BCA has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to state politicians and judges over the past decade.

The UAW’s fight to unionize also represents a larger struggle against the organized corporate power structure that has long held down the living standards of Alabama’s working people.

ProgressPAC gets significant funding through big infusions of corporate donations. Over the past year alone, it has disclosed “major” contributions that total $380,000 from some of Alabama’s most powerful corporations, many of which are represented as BCA officers and executive committee members, including Regions Bank, Protective Life Corporation, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama, Great Southern Wood Preserving, and several others.

(Warrior Met Coal, which fought striking coal miners for two years, and is also a BCA board member, has been a big ProgressPAC donor — giving $15,000 in 2022).

The BCA also employs a team of lobbyists from the state’s most powerful firms, some of whom have significant revolving door ties to the state government. For example, Josh O. Blades was chief of staff to former Alabama Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard and deputy chief of staff to former Alabama Gov. Bob Riley. Lobbyist Raymond L. Bell is the former chair of the State of Alabama Ethics Commission.

Beyond lobbying, BCA leaders often have former powerful positions in the state government.

BCA executive vice president Clay Scofield is the former majority leader in the Alabama Senate. BCA political strategist Paul Shashy managed Katie Britt and Tommy Tuberville’s U.S. Senate runs. BCA Director of Governmental Affairs and Executive Director of ProgressPAC Caroline Franklin previously served several Alabama state elected officials. Former BCA CEO Robin Stone served in the cabinet of former Republican Gov. Bob Riley as director of legislative affairs.

The BCA also regularly hosts receptions and conferences where lobbyists, corporate leaders and elected officials can schmooze while golfing and sipping cocktails. Some corporations — Alabama Power, Regions Bank, and others — pay upwards of $10,000 or more to sponsor these events. Top state politicians like Governor Ivey and Senator Tuberville flock to these gatherings, and the BCA brings in sports celebrities like Peyton Manning to speak. BCA members also burnish their reputations by giving millions to University of Alabama sports teams.

Taking on Alabama’s Entrenched Corporate Power

If Alabama autoworkers vote to unionize in mid-May, it’ll be the second major victory in the UAW’s new organizing campaign, with more wins likely to come.

But in a real way, the UAW’s fight to unionize Alabama autoworkers also represents a larger struggle against the organized corporate power structure that dominates the state and has long held down the living standards of Alabama’s working people.

The UAW union drive is pitting Alabama’s 99 percent against its 1 percent — and we know which side the Business Council of America represents.

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