Union membership drops in Tennessee as legislature considers putting right to work laws in state constitution

Signs for and against unionization are in a roundabout along Volkswagen Drive in front of the Volkswagen plant Friday, June 14, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. / Staff file photo
Signs for and against unionization are in a roundabout along Volkswagen Drive in front of the Volkswagen plant Friday, June 14, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. / Staff file photo

The number of Tennessee workers belonging to labor unions fell last year by nearly 13% despite an overall gain in employment across the Volunteer State, cutting the share of unionized workers in Tennessee to the 6th lowest rate among all states, according to government figures released Wednesday.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said 135,000 private-sector workers in Tennessee were members of labor unions in 2019, or 20,000 fewer than the previous year. The losses for organized labor reduced the share of unionized workers in the private sector in Tennessee from 5.5% of all workers in 2018 to only 4.6% of the workforce last year.

"In the South, it is a tough row to hoe for us, but I do think we've seen some positive signs, especially in helping with the building trades and some of the apprenticeship programs we have in local school systems in our bigger cities," said Billy Dycus, president of the Tennessee AFL-CIO. "I think the view of labor unions is more positive now than it has been in while."

Nonetheless, despite an uptick in union rolls in Tennessee following the Great Recession, the BLS said the number of Tennesseans belonging to labor union still dropped over the past two decades by nearly 39%, or 85,000 workers. The decline in Tennessee mirrors a nationwide drop for organized labor, which shed 3.1 million members since 1983 to cut its share of the workforce from more than 20% in 1983 to 10.3% last year.

The United Auto Workers last spring mounted the biggest organizing campaign of the year in Tennessee to try to represent hourly workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga. But VW workers voted 833-776 against joining the UAW, the second defeat for the Detroit-based union at the Volkswagen plant in five years.

UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg said Wednesday that overall membership of the UAW has remained relatively constant in recent years at around 400,000 and could rise in Tennessee this year at the General Motors plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee.

"We're in pretty good shape in Tennessee and holding steady nationwide," he said.

Rothenberg declined to discuss UAW's future organizing plans at the Volkswagen plant, but he said unions continue to offer employees a voice where they work and a chance to collectively bargain for wages and benefits.

Lowest union membership states

1. South Carolina, 2.2%2. North Carolina, 2.3%3. Virginia, 4.0%3. Texas, 4.0%5. Georgia, 4.1%6. Tennessee. 4.6%7. Idaho, 4.9%8. Arkansas, 5.2%9. Louisiana, 5.3%10. Arizona, 5.7% Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Top states for union membership last year, in order, were Hawaii (23.5%), Washington, (18.8%), Alaska (17.1%), California (15.2%) and Nevada (14.6%).

"What can be wrong with giving people a seat at the table at their own workplace to share in the profits of a company that is successful," Rothenberg said. "That's what unions do."

Dycus said WARN notices across the state showed 1,890 unionized workers lost their jobs last year, including the last of 1,200 jobs at the Goodman Manufacturing plant in Fayetteville, Tenn. But far more non-union workers, totaling more than 7,000 jobs in 2019, were put out of work in Tennessee due to business cutbacks, state WARN notices show. Dycus said many union members are retiring, not necessarily being laid off.

But Tennessee business groups and some GOP leaders are eager to make sure that labor unions are supported only by those who vote to join a union and decide individually if they want to pay dues for their union representation in a union shop. Since 1947, Tennessee has been a right to work state allowing each individual to choose whether or not to join and financially support the union even if a union is legally required to represent that individual in a collective bargaining agreement with their employer.

Republicans in the General Assembly, including Sen. Bo Watson and a half dozen other GOP lawmakers in the Senate and Rep. Robin Smith and seven other Republicans in the House chamber, want to add Tennessee's Right to Work law to the state constitution to make it impossible for a future Legislature to change labor union membership requirements.

"We are currently a Right to Work work state, but as the demographics of Tennessee are changing and as we have become a destination that is highly sought after by other large corporate interests, we want to ensure that the things that make Tennessee great remain and that we don't compel union membership, nor do we penalize it," Smith said. "This protects the worker and, while we now have the law in place, we want to make sure that for generations to come that the structure that has made Tennessee so highly sought after as a business climate still exists."

Smith credits Tennessee's right to work laws for helping to lure many of the automotive plants to the state from more highly unionized states like Michigan, which only recently adopted a right-to-work standard for union membership.

Bradley Jackson, president of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said the state's right to work law "is one of the first things that businesses look at" when deciding where to locate and expand and the statewide Chamber is backing the measure to put right to work in the constitution to ensure it remains protected.

"This has helped us a a state with our economic growth, especially with manufacturers," Jackson said. "I don't think there is any denying that."

But Dycus questioned if the Right to Work laws across the South are so effective, "why are rates of poverty higher in the South and wages, health care and educational achievement lower in states with fewer unions?"

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last year that the typical worker represented by a labor union was paid $1,082 a week, or 21.3% more than the $892 average pay per week for non-union workers.

The advantage for unionized workers was even bigger for women and African Americans, according to BLS figures. Women represented by unions were paid, on average, 26.3% more than their non-unon counterparts and unionized black workers were paid nearly 27% more than other black workers not represented by unions.

"Unions are the best way to protect yourself in the workplace and to provide your family with health care, pensions and a safe workplace," Dycus said.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.

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