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Flashback: Huntsville's Anti-Union Fervor Burns

Work began on the 553,000-square-foot Chrysler Electronics City plant in March 1987.

Work began on the 553,000-square-foot Chrysler Electronics City plant in March 1987.

When Chrysler began building a $65 million electronics components plant — Chrysler Electronics City — in Huntsville in March, 1987, business leaders in the former cotton town were ready for a barn burning.

“Frankly, I think we’d be better off if we didn’t have Chrysler,” one official, who declined to be identified, told Business Alabama.

“The business community was pretty upset. Basically, the city of Huntsville is not necessarily pro-union,” said Huntsville Mayor Joe Davis, in an understatement.

“I don’t know of a union project that’s been built up there in 13 years,” said Jeff Masters, director of Associated Builders and Contractors of Alabama, the open shop association of state builders.

In a deal similar to the one that recently landed a Remington Outdoor Co. plant, the city of Huntsville and the airport authority bagged the Chrysler plant by offering them 320 acres at a bargain price.

Chrysler agreed to do everything it could to hire local companies to build the plant. But the company had just hammered out with the AFL-CIO a benchmark labor agreement — the “Modern Operating Agreement,” modeled on Japanese-style team manufacturing — and had agreed to use union labor in building new plants.

Since 95 percent of the construction companies in Huntsville were non-union, there was not much Chrysler could do to hire them. Many subcontracts went to builders in The Shoals, where labor was strong. The prime contract went to Universal Construction, in Decatur.

Huntsville finally bought back 170 acres of a 320-acre site that the city and airport authority had put together for Chrysler — taking a supplier park out of the Chrysler-union pact.

Chrysler was bought by Daimler in 1998. Daimler-Chrysler sold Electronics City in 2004 to Siemens, which sold it the next year to Continental AG, which shut down the plant in 2010. Most of its 1,280 jobs were shipped to border towns in Mexico and Texas.

The former Chrysler Electronics City was the key to landing the new Remington Outdoor Co. plant, Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle says in the Executive Q&A in this issue. He says he doesn’t remember the subject of unions ever coming up.

Chris McFadyen is the editorial director of Business Alabama.

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