Tennessee Labor Day 2022: A debate about state constitutional amendment enshrining state’s ‘right to work’ law

Staff photo / Signs for and against unionization stand in a roundabout along Volkswagen Drive in front of the Volkswagen plant in 2019 in Chattanooga. Volkswagen workers that year voted 833-776 against joining the UAW in the biggest union bid in Chattanooga in the past decade.

NASHVILLE -- Tennessee has had a "right to work" law on its books for 75 years, but this November state voters will be asked to decide if they want to make it a part of the state's constitution that no one can be compelled to join a union or pay union dues as a condition of their employment.

The effort is being led by Tennessee business leaders with the backing of Republican Gov. Bill Lee.

Former Gov. Bill Haslam, also a Republican, is serving as treasurer of the effort, organized as the Yes on 1 Committee. It has the active involvement of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce & Industry in promoting the amendment.

Opposing the measure is organized labor, which says enshrining the state's 1947 law in the state constitution makes no sense because unions have never had plans to try to gut it.

The debate over the proposed state constitutional amendment comes as Labor Day is being observed as a federal holiday Monday. Then-President Grover Cleveland declared it a national holiday after the Pullman Strike in 1894, a nationwide protest that resulted in federal labor laws to protect workers.

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.

Of the 27 states, 18 have right-to-work laws, and nine states have right-to-work constitutional amendments.

"For 75 years, Tennessee has been a right-to-work state," Haslam says in a video posted on the Yes on 1 website. "That means that no Tennessean can be fired based on their choice to join, or not join, a union and pay dues. As governors and as business owners, Bill (Lee) and I both know that our right-to-work law has been a key ingredient in the effort to bring high-wage jobs to Tennessee."

Lee says in the video that what Tennessee is doing right now is working.

"Right-to-work is common sense, and with federal efforts to repeal it nationwide, it's time for Tennesseans to speak up," he says. "This November, we have a unique opportunity to make right-to-work a constitutional right here in Tennessee."

The governor's comments about national efforts to repeal right-to-work laws is a reference to the Democratic-led U.S. House's passage in 2021 of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act. It favors unionization efforts and doing away with right-to-work laws that crimp labor organizing efforts in states, including Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama.

"I'm proud to stand with President (Joe) Biden and with progressive labor leaders in Memphis and around the country in voting for this measure, which recognizes the need to re-orient federal labor law in favor of workers after decades of declining union membership and middle-class incomes," U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a Memphis Democrat, said after the measure passed the House last year.

Chances for passage of the federal law, however, are seen as slim in the U.S. Senate under narrow Democratic control.

Among the first

The Tennessee AFL-CIO charges enshrining the provisions in the state constitution would be harmful.

"Working families are under attack in Tennessee," the union says on its website. "Greedy politicians, big business and corporate special interest groups are pushing to enshrine Tennessee's right-to-work law in our state constitution. The labor movement knows: right-to-work laws are designed to take power away from working people."

Tennessee was one of the first states to pass a right-to-work law in 1947.

State Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, said by phone that he opposes amending the constitution to include the right-to-work law.

"I think it's detrimental to building a middle class in the state of Tennessee," Hakeem said by phone Saturday. "And it's pointed at unions in particular. I think if all those persons who are expressing support for that amendment, if they look in the family tree, they'll find someone who has been a part of a union to make a better life for themselves and their families."

(READ MORE: Rep. Hakeem's Black history bill clears Tennessee House)

Attempts last week to reach state Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, a pro-business Signal Mountain Republican listed on the Yes for 1 website as the Hamilton County chair of the effort, were unsuccessful.

Tennessee Chamber of Commerce & Industry President and CEO Bradley Jackson said by phone last week the constitutional provision is necessary.

"Now that we've had both federal legislation that seeks to repeal all state right-to-work statutes and also state legislation that was filed last year that would have excluded or basically deleted Tennessee's right-to-work statute, we feel like it's a really important initiative and one we need to do if we're going to permanently embed Tennessee as one of the best states in the nation," Jackson said.

Right-to-work provisions are "one of the first things, kind of like one of the first big things that get checked" when businesses weigh locating in a state, Jackson said in a statement.

Asked if Tennessee businesses are concerned about a collision between the state's right-to-work law with labor-friendly companies such as Ford Motor Co. -- which last year announced it would construct a $5.6 billion electric truck and battery complex in rural West Tennessee -- Jackson said no.

"Those are two different issues," Jackson said.

Last year, then-state Rep. Robin Smith, a Hixson Republican, unsuccessfully sought to amend the funding bill for Ford and partner SK Industries to specifically prohibit Ford from allowing the United Auto Workers to bypass an anticipated unionization effort at the plant utilizing a "card check" process versus secret ballot.

Card check is seen by critics as union-friendly. Smith's effort was unsuccessful.

(READ MORE: Tennessee state Rep. Smith plans legislation to restrict unionization efforts)

Also weighing in favor of enshrining the right-to-work law in the state constitution was Tennessee Beacon Center President and CEO Justin Owen.

"We feel like there are really deep levels of support," Owen said by phone last week. "This is framed as it is a protecting-work freedoms and worker rights. Tennesseans ... have a deep independent streak when it comes to collective bargaining issues. We feel that that kind of a message, it's really kind of a powerful narrative that people really get and understand what we're seeking to do.

During state Senate debate last year, Democratic Leader Jeff Yarbro of Nashville spoke out against the effort to put right-to-work in the Tennessee Constitution.

"Historically, things don't go well when we start putting our opinions on policy into the constitution," Yarbro told GOP colleagues. When you think about all of the somersaults that we've turned over gambling in recent years, from the lottery to sports wagering, all the things when we've got what is in essence a bad policy frozen into the constitution.

"The same prohibition could be said about prohibition back in the day. or numerous other issues that become constitutionalized that really aren't about the constitution at all," Yarbro said at the time.

Republicans easily approved the measure, which required a two-thirds majority to get on the ballot.

Below average

Despite a gain in union membership last year in Tennessee, the share of workers represented by labor unions in the Volunteer State is about half the national average.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said union membership in 2021 increased in Tennessee by nearly 24%, to 145,000, despite a nationwide decline in the number of workers represented by organized labor. With the growth, 5.9% of workers were represented last year by labor unions in Tennessee -- the 8th lowest state in the country for unions, according to federal figures.

Nationwide, 10.3% of U.S. workers were represented by a union in 2021.

Tennessee AFL-CIO President Billy Dycus said in a phone interview last week that while Southern states have historically had fewer unionized workers than most northern states, he sees growing worker interest in labor unions to provide workers more of a voice in the workplace.

(READ MORE: GOP-led Senate panel approves 'right to work' Tennessee constitutional amendment)

"There's no doubt there is a renewed interest in being a part of a labor union," Dycus said. "Some of that has to do with the COVID pandemic when some people were forced to work in conditions that may have been unsafe. People have really thought about what they want in a workplace, and I think that has helped to spur more interest in being represented by a union."

A new Gallup survey found that 71% of Americans now approve of labor unions -- the highest share since 1965. The National Labor Relations Board reported a 57% increase in union election petitions filed during the first half of fiscal 2021.

Unions have historically been weaker in Southern states where labor laws are less favorable for organized labor. Most states in the South have limited the ability of labor unions to collect dues from workers they represent if the employees don't opt to join the union.

Pay deduction

Proponents argue that right-to-work laws allow personal choice and freedom for the worker and contend it is unfair to force employees into union fees deducted from their pay.

Opponents view the laws as "anti-union" and note that union dues may be collected only if a majority of workers in a company vote to be represented by a union. Union supporters also note that right-to-work laws historically have weakened unions' bargaining strength, consequently lowering wages and benefits.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in January that the median pay of unionized workers last year was $1,169, or nearly 20% higher than the median weekly pay of $975 a week for non-union workers.

Labor unions in Chattanooga remain strongest in the public sector at unions such as the Tennessee Education Association, representing public school teachers, or the International Brotherhood and Electrical Workers and the Engineering Association, representing TVA workers.

But the United Auto Workers has also gained membership as major unionized automakers such as General Motors and Ford expand operations in Tennessee and add thousands of jobs for workers represented by the UAW.

The UAW has twice tried unsuccessfully to organize the Volkswagen of America plant in Chattanooga. The Detroit-baed union lost its first unionization bid to represent hourly employees at the VW assembly plant in 2014 by a vote of 712 against the union and 626 in favor of UAW representing.

Five years later, the UAW lost an even closer election by a narrow 833-776 vote, according to the National Labor Relations Board. Dycus said he thinks VW workers will eventually vote to unionize the Chattanooga plant, similar to the union representation at Volkswagen plants elsewhere in the world.

Dycus said union interest is also growing in the service sector with union organizing campaigns at some hospitals or major retail chains like Starbucks and Amazon.

The share of workers belonging to unions across the country has fallen in half over the past four decades. In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate in the U.S. was 20.1%.

The presence of labor unions in Chattanooga has also declined over the past half-century with the closings of major unionized plants such as Wheland Foundry, Cavalier Corp. and U.S. Pipe and Foundry.

Amendment 1

When state voters go to cast ballots in the Nov. 8 election, they will find four proposed amendments to the state constitution. Among them is Amendment, 1 which enshrines the state’s existing right-to-work law. The amendment states:

“Shall Article XI of the Constitution of Tennessee be amended by adding the following language as a new section? It is unlawful for any person, corporation, association, or this state or its political subdivisions to deny or attempt to deny employment to any person by reason of the person’s membership in, affiliation with, resignation from, or refusal to join or affiliate with any labor union or employee organization.”

Proposed constitutional amendments are presented as yes or no questions. A yes vote is a vote to amend the Constitution and adopt the proposed language in the amendment. A no vote is a vote not to amend the Constitution and keep the current language in the Constitution unchanged.

Two things must happen for an amendment to pass and become part of the Constitution. The first is the amendment must get more yes votes than no votes. The second is that the number of yes votes must be a majority of the total votes in the gubernatorial election.

Source: Tennessee Secretary of State

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.