The disintegration of the once mighty Business Council of Alabama (BCA) has been a sight to behold. Under the leadership of its now-former head, Bill Canary, the BCA filled a power vacuum left by the Democrat-friendly Alabama Education Association (AEA), an organization that was marginalized by the completion of the Republican Party’s takeover of Montgomery in 2010.
Canary, once somewhat of kingmaker in Alabama Republican politics, exited the stage for a position at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce earlier this month. His departure came after a mass exodus from the BCA that included Alabama household names Alabama Power, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama and Regions Bank.
Canary received the blame for this exodus. To many, the BCA under Canary’s leadership never was the political powerhouse it was expected to be. The hope was that it might rival what the AEA had been for decades in the Statehouse, with Paul Hubbert standing in the balcony pointing at his eye for an “aye” vote and his nose for a “no” vote.
The problem with that notion was it would be hard to build a coalition out of all the different industries and get them on the same page, whereas with Hubbert’s AEA it was all about acting in the interest of public schoolteachers represented by the AEA.
As a result, we saw a breakup of the traditional so-called “Big Mules” in Alabama.
Many see that as a good thing. Decentralizing the influence and lobbying power adds elements of competition to the system. Instead of having one behemoth entity writing checks to candidates to steamroll their competitors in primaries and general elections, these groups, in some cases, will be forced to back different candidates with different points of view, and this push and pull will be reflected by the elected representation in state government.
What about those defectors from the BCA? Now that Canary is gone, will they come back to the BCA? Or perhaps, will they go in on their own and create something new that is more specialized to promote their interests?
There is a lot of chatter about the possibility of Alabama Power going in with Manufacture Alabama, an existing trade association with an emphasis on industry instead of business.
One of the key differences between the BCA and Manufacture Alabama was their stance on unionized labor.
Under Canary, the BCA took a lot of anti-union positions. In 2016, the BCA pushed for an amendment to the state constitution to strengthen Alabama’s statutes establishing it as a right-to-work state.
Manufacture Alabama has not taken quite as hard a stance against unionized labor. Many of its existing members are union shops and, given that Alabama Power is also a union shop, its home might be with the Manufacture Alabama trade association.
With this shuffling of power in the state away from anti-union forces, could there be a re-emergence of big labor in Alabama’s not-so-distant future?
Another sign of this could be Donald Trump’s popularity in Alabama, and it could go back further than that to Jeff Sessions’ time as U.S. senator in Alabama.
Alabama in many ways was the birthplace of this nationalist populism. Sessions as U.S. senator championed the current legal domestic workforce and warned that an influx of legal and illegal immigrants would depress wages and lower the standard of living for many Americans.
Trump picked up that baton and made a presidential campaign out of it. For Trump, it wasn’t just the immigration but the American worker, who he framed as betrayed by big business chasing cheap labor to the detriment of many of the nation’s communities.
According to then-candidate Trump, the path to cheap labor was paved by trade deals.
Much of what Trump was preaching could have been what many blue-collar Americans had heard from union bosses all over America for the last 100 years. It was rhetoric born out of the various populist movement in U.S. history.
Given that, for the sake of argument say Alabama is the heart of Trump country. If you have watched any of the political advertising over the past few months, you would assume that to be the case.
What is it about Trump that Alabamians like? Is it just his style? Is it just that he tweets whatever is on his mind and is willing to take it to the Democrats and the media?
Perhaps it is more than that. What if there are Alabamians that think they’ve been wronged by the system? Alabama was already Republican, but was it Trump’s policies that put this movement on steroids in this state?
If there is an underlying populist movement buoying this popularity Trump is enjoying, then could it someday translate to the re-unionization of Alabama?
Labor unions haven’t been very popular in Alabama. They are seen as pro-Democrat, pro-liberal policies, and in some ways corrupt. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, union membership accounts for 7.4 percent of the workforce in Alabama.
With national labor unions desperately clinging to survival in America, what if they changed their tune from being pro-Democrat to pro-Republican? What if instead of a Franklin D. Roosevelt or Bill Clinton mask, they donned a Donald Trump mask? Imagine how a pro-Trump union might successfully infiltrate any of these foreign automakers that set up shop in Alabama.
Given these changes in Montgomery, where the smallest of things can impact the way legislation or regulations are written, that can open or close the door for union contractors. No longer does an anti-union BCA have as much clout as it once had.
Add to that a smart marketing campaign by the AFL-CIO or the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers that captures a lot of what Trump, as pushed in 2016, could make unionization a much easier pill to swallow for Alabamians.
It could be years, or even generations before “union” isn’t a dirty word in Alabama. But that pendulum could be swinging the other way.
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