GOP-led Senate panel approves 'right to work' Tennessee constitutional amendment

Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, speaks during a debate on school voucher legislation Wednesday, May 1, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. The GOP-supermajority House and Senate passed a negotiated version of the bill that would increase the amount of public dollars that can pay for private tuition and other expenses. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE - There was no doubt that the Republican-dominated Senate Commerce and Labor Committee on Tuesday would easily approve a resolution that seeks to enshrine Tennessee's "right to work" law in the state constitution.

And so they did on an 8-1 vote, with the lone Democratic senator voting no.

The 73-year-old law bars employers from denying employment to anyone based on whether they belong or don't belong to a labor union.

Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, the resolution's sponsor, noted Tennessee's law was passed in 1947 by Democrats who controlled both House and Senate, just as Republicans do today. Twenty-seven of the 50 states have similar laws, he said.

Nine states have made right-to-work provisions part of their state constitutions, with Alabama voters adding to their constitution in 2016, Kelsey said.

"Why is this important? Because - the state of Virginia is presently debating this legislative session whether to repeal its right to work law," Kelsey said of the now-Democratic-controlled legislature there. "By adopting this constitutional amendment you'd make that much more difficult."

But before voting to approve the resolution, Republicans had to listen to a lecture from Tennessee AFL-CIO President Billy Dycus, who criticized the law, saying it discourages workers from joining unions yet the very same workers can reap the benefits the unions negotiate with employers on pay and benefits. Dycus argued there are other downside impacts from the law.

"Workplace fatalities more likely in right-to-work states than in non-right-to-work states," Dycus told Republicans. "Tennessee happens to be no. 1 on the list in terms of minimum-wage jobs."

Dycus said that while Kelsey cites his proposed constitutional amendment as protecting workers' rights in perpetuity, "what about a civil right to have access to affordable health care? Public education's severely underfunded? Or a civil right to good-paying jobs and [jobs that will] sustain a family?"

As he presented the resolution, Kelsey, an attorney with the Chicago-based Liberty Justice Center who has worked on lawsuits targeting unions in several states, invoked the Senate's Rule 13. It states that while he may have a personal interest, his argument and vote "answer only to my conscience and to my obligation to my constituents and the citizens of the State of Tennessee."

But the lawmaker had considerable backing in testimony from the heads of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce, National Federation of Independent Business-Tennessee and Justin Owens, head of the Nashville-based, free market research institution Beacon Center and its ancillary advocacy arm.

Tennessee Chamber President and CEO Bradley Jackson touted the current law, saying it's "one of the first things we hear on why Tennessee is identified as a strong business state. Tennessee was one of the first [with the law] and it's been positive. We feel like it's truly a linchpin to Tennessee's growth."

After winning committee approval, the resolution will go to a scheduling committee for the Senate floor. Under the state's lengthy process for putting an amendment before voters on the ballot, it will have to be read three times and then pass the current General Assembly by a majority vote. It then would go through the same process in the next General Assembly taking office in 2021. But it would require two thirds approval before getting onto the ballot.

Contact Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.