By a better than 2-to-1 margin, Tennessee voters Tuesday approved a constitutional amendment to enshrine the state's right-to-work law in the state constitution, making it more difficult for future legislatures to change how workers who decide to join a union can collect union dues.
Backers of Amendment 1 on Tuesday's ballot for the right-to-work provision in the constitution said its adoption underscores Tennessee's pro-business environment. Tennessee joins eight other states that have such right-to-work provisions in their state constitutions to limit unions from collecting dues for representation from nonunion members even if a majority of workers at a business vote to join the union.
"I think the message that we had really resonated with voters that it is a fundamental right that you can't be compelled to join or support a union as a condition of where you work," Bradley Jackson, president of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said Wednesday during a Tennessee Manufacturing Roadshow in Cleveland, Tennessee. "We're very, very pleased with the outcome, and I think it really solidifies the message that Tennessee is one of the best states in the country in terms of our business climate."
But labor union leaders who fought against the amendment said Wednesday they think many voters were confused by the language of the proposal and discounted its significance because Tennessee already had a right-to-work law on its books for the past 75 years.
"We're certainly disappointed by this vote, but it's hard to reverse 75 years of rhetoric about right to work in a short period of time," Billy Dycus, president of the Tennessee AFL-CIO, said Wednesday in a telephone interview. "I'm still optimistic about our union and where we are headed because I think more and more people are realizing the value of collective bargaining to ensure they can earn a living wage."
Tennessee has had a "right-to-work" law on its books since 1947, but business groups and the current and former Tennessee governor urged that the right-to-work law be put in the state's constitution to make it more difficult to overturn the law in the future.
Tennessee is one of 27 states that now have a right-to-work law that gives workers a choice when it comes to union membership. Labor unions still operate in those states, but workers cannot be compelled to become members as a requirement of their job.
Governors push amendment
Former Gov. Bill Haslam, who helped lead the Amendment 1 ballot initiative, said in previous news reports right-to-law protections "have been a key ingredient in the effort to bring high-wage jobs to Tennessee."
Gov. Bill Lee said in previous news reports the measure is needed to help Tennessee challenge any federal attempt to override right-to-work laws by states through legislative proposals like the PRO Act. which the U.S. House of Representatives approved last year.
"With federal efforts to repeal it nationwide, it's time for Tennesseans to speak up," Lee said in his push for the measure.
Amendment 1 gathered 1,140,629 votes, or nearly 69.8% of the ballots cast, compared with 493,629 votes, or 30.2% of the ballots, against the measure, according to preliminary vote totals from the Tennessee secretary of state.
Trey Jenkins, a union steward for the Teamsters union at UPS, said when he talked with voters at the polls, he found a majority were unfamiliar with Amendment 1 and what the language means.
"Most of the people I talked with at the polls before they went in to vote told me they were not familiar with any of the amendments on the ballot," Jenkins said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "I personally think at least half of those who voted for Amendment 1 just voted yes across the board for all of the amendments without really knowing much of anything about what it means."
Strength of labor
The measure affects only those who work for employee groups where a majority of the workers have voted to be represented by a labor union. In Tennessee, only 5.2% of private sector employees were represented by labor unions last year, or only half the national average rate, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Tennessee had the biggest percentage jump of any state in union membership last year, but the addition of 28,000 more union members in 2021 still didn't make up for all of the 38,000 union jobs lost in the previous two years.
Business groups claim the low rate of union membership in the South -- the sixth-lowest rate among all states in Georgia and the eighth-lowest rate for union members of any state in Tennessee -- helps business recruitment as evidenced by the higher rates of business investment in recent years in lower unionized states.
Unions stress that organized labor helps boost worker pay. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, union workers, on average, earned a median weekly pay last year of $1,169, or 17% more than the $975 median pay for the typical nonunion worker.
Gay Henson, a Chattanooga union activist and secretary-treasurer of the 90,000-member International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, said the constitutional amendment "doesn't change the status quo; it is simply a signal to the corporate cronies of anti-worker politicians: Do whatever you want."
But Jackson said the constitutional amendment helps ensure workers won't be compelled to join a union to get or keep their job and makes the Volunteer State more business friendly. Right-to-work laws are often cited by site selectors, who recently gave Tennessee the highest rating as a state to locate a new business in, according to Site Selection magazine.
Jackson said Tennessee also benefits from its central location, its lack of personal income tax and its favorable state government fiscal policies and debt.
"Tennessee is known as a pro-business state, and I think this vote reinforces that message," Jackson said.