Over the past 20 years, Alabama has become a major site for automobile manufacturing in America, due in no small part to state-provided incentives, a lax regulatory environment, and the region’s legislative hostility toward organized labor. Mercedes-Benz, Honda, Toyota, and Hyundai have all built factories there. Last year, these sites produced a total of 1 million cars, placing Alabama in the top-five states for vehicle production, a ranking that is expected to increase to number two with the forthcoming opening of a joint Toyota/Mazda manufacturing site. Given the recent signing of strongly anti-choice legislation there, how should these automakers respond? The answer thus far has been silence.
The Republican Governor of Alabama, Kay Ivey, recently endorsed a law that effectively bans all abortions statewide, even in cases of rape or incest, and criminalizes the procedure for doctors who perform it. This is the most restrictive such law in the country, and one that is in direct opposition to a woman’s right to choice outlined in the landmark 1973 Supreme Court case Roe vs. Wade.
Many of these automakers have taken stands on social issues in the past. Toyota spoke out officially against the so-called “bathroom bills” in North Carolina and elsewhere that targeted the rights of transgender people. Honda was recently the first auto manufacturer in Ohio to join a coalition to support the addition of sexuality to workplace protections, a category for which no federal protection exists. And Toyota, Hyundai, and Mercedes all have official corporate commitments to LGBTQ diversity and protection, as well as providing support for employee resource groups for veterans, Asian-Americans, African-Americans, people with disabilities, LGBTQ employees, and women.
Yet none of these manufacturers has taken a public position on the anti-choice legislation passed by the state, legislation that has the potential to affect the health and welfare of their employees and the communities in which they live, not to mention set a precedent for further such restrictions on women’s rights. We reached out to all four manufacturers with factories in Alabama for comment on this legislation, but received no substantial response. (Toyota said, “We do not have a comment on this specific legislation.” Mercedes said, “Please understand that we cannot comment.” Honda said, “No comment.” Hyundai received our multiple requests for comment, but did not respond.)
Honda, Hyundai, Mercedes, and Toyota are all supporting members of the Business Council of Alabama (BCA), an advocacy group whose mission includes lobbying for tax credits, economic development incentives, and public education reform. The BCA also has a Political Action Committee, supported by voluntary contributions from members, which is charged, according to spokesperson Nancy Hewston, with working “to support candidates who understand the principles of the free enterprise system.”
According to Vote Smart-a non-partisan resource that reports on candidates for public office-the BCA was among the top contributors to Governor Ivey’s recent election campaign, donating $100,000. The BCA was also a significant contributor to the campaigns of Lieutenant Governor Will Ainsworth ($25,000) and Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed ($10,000). We requested comment from the automakers on the BCA contributions, and Toyota, Mercedes, and Honda responded again with “no further comment;” Hyundai again did not respond at all.
These manufacturers cannot claim apoliticism. They came to Alabama because of its legislative environment: laws (or lack thereof) that foster loose state intervention, weak worker protections, and low wages (Alabama is one of five states that has no state minimum wage.) They lobby the government for laws that serve their interests. They tacitly or directly support donations to political candidates through membership in advocacy organizations. As major employers in the state-according to the U.S. Department of Labor, Honda is the state’s number 6 employer, Hyundai is number 13, and Mercedes is number 31-they have clout in local political decisions. They also have a history of taking official positions on social and political issues.
While these manufacturers have chosen not to address current anti-choice law in Alabama, but this position may become untenable. Already, because of this law, calls have been made to boycott products made in Alabama-including cars and trucks-and to boycott visiting the state for the purposes of business and tourism. Directives have even been made by officials in other states (Colorado and Maryland) to ban public employees from traveling to Alabama for official business purposes and to divest public employee pensions from businesses that have offices or headquarters in Alabama. While the business environment was favorable for these automakers to set up plants in the state, a side effect is that they are now linked to this legislation. Their track record of more socially liberal policies elsewhere may make Alabama an uncomfortable home in the future.
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