By BERRY CRAIG
To hear some local politicians and business leaders tell it, a slew of companies has expressed interest in coming to Bowling Green and its environs since the county fiscal court approved a “right-to-work” ordinance last December.
General Motors has just announced it will plunk down $439 million to expand Bowling Green’s biggest unionized business: the giant factory where members of United Auto Workers Local 2164 build Chevy Corvettes.
The upgrades will include a 450,000-square-foot paint shop. The facility will be nearly half the size of the plant, according to a press release from Gov. Steve Beshear’s office.
“For more than three decades, Kentucky and General Motors have shared a deep connection,” the governor said in the release. “This expansion only makes the relationship stronger and will create a foundation for future growth.”
Nobody is happier over the plant expansion than Bill Londrigan, president of the Kentucky State AFL-CIO.
“But it is ironic that this enormous investment in Bowling Green, the fulcrum of anti-unionism in Kentucky, is taking place at a union shop,” he said.
Last December, Warren County, of which Bowling Green is the seat, passed a “right to work” ordinance. Since, 11 more of Kentucky’s 120 counties have approved similar measures.
In January, nine unions filed suit in federal court in Louisville against the Hardin County ordinance. The suit could be expanded to cover all 12 ordinances.
Attorney Gen. Jack Conway, the state AFL-CIO-endorsed candidate for governor, issued an official opinion agreeing with the unions that only states and territories can approve RTW measures.
Meanwhile RTW proponents regularly claim that unions in non-RTW states like Kentucky keep companies away or that they drive companies from non-RTW states to RTW states.
In any event, Londrigan sees more irony in the press release where two of the most vocal local RTW boosters, Republican State Rep. Jim DeCesare, and Warren County’s GOP County Judge- Executive Mike Buchanon, fulsomely praised the expansion at the union plant.
“I’m pleased with the confidence GM is showing by making this large investment in Warren County to guarantee more cars will roll off the assembly line for years to come,”DeCesare said.
Buchanon pushed the RTW ordinance in the fiscal court. But in the release he said, “Yet again, GM has proven south central Kentucky is an ideal location for companies by finding great success and continuing to invest in our region.”
Mum was the word from DeCesare and Buchanon about RTW.
Anyway, shortly before the GM announcement, DeCesare hosted a pro-RTW forum at the National Corvette Museum near the factory.
Predictably, the panel, which included local and out-of-state union-busters, praised RTW and panned unions. They crooned the same tune: companies don’t go – and by implication don’t grow — where RTW is absent.
The crowd was sparse. Empty seats far outnumbered filled ones.
The panelists probably wished Eldon Renaud hadn’t shown up. A former Bowling Green mayor, he is the outgoing president of Local 2164.
Renaud said one of the RTW flacks claimed that because of the RTW ordinance, Bowling Green and Warren County have attracted interest from 47 economic development projects “with a potential investment of about $9 million.”
Renaud was ready with a reply. “I told them to just wait a couple of days and they’d hear an announcement about one of the largest plant expansions in Warren County history.”
Renaud also told the panel that holding the forum in the Corvette museum “was a real slap in the face to our union. We contributed over a quarter of a million dollars, through payroll deductions, to help build this museum.”
He and Londrigan dismissed any notion that the RTW ordinance prompted the expansion.
“The union has been pushing for a new paint shop for years and years,” Renaud said. “We need a better paint shop to better compete with other manufacturers.”
Londrigan said companies like GM plan major expansions for many months before they are announced.
Arvin Jones, GM North American manufacturing manager, said nothing about RTW in the release: “With this major technology investment, we can continue to exceed the expectations of sports car buyers for years to come. These types of investments are evidence that the customer is at the center of every decision we make.”
The Corvette plant has been a union shop since it opened in 1981. “In spite of the illegal county ‘right to work’ ordinance, it continues to function as a union shop,” Londrigan said. “This is not a ‘right to work’ facility, and the membership of UAW Local 2164 plans to keep it that way.”
The press release also said GM’s latest expenditure at the factory “builds on approximately $135 million invested in the plant over the last four years for the new seventh-generation Corvette and Performance Build Center. Last month, GM announced it would invest $5.4 billion in its U.S. facilities over the next three years.”
Those facilities are unionized.
The plant expansion is an example of good “things that can be accomplished when the union and management partner together,” said Ray Curry, the Lebanon, Tenn.-based UAW Region 8 director.
Lt. Gov. Crit Luallen, union officers, plant management and others spoke at the announcement ceremony in the plant. Beshear and Luallen oppose RTW.
The podium was in front of a giant screen TV that showed an American flag and the GM and UAW logos side by side.
“This expansion further solidifies the future of that manufacturing facility and is a tribute to both the leadership of UAW Local 2164 and General Motors management,” Curry said.