NASHVILLE -- A bill to deny Tennessee economic incentive grants to companies that recognize labor groups organized through a union-friendly employee election process is moving in the House with a powerful sponsor and the assistance of a Hamilton County state representative.
The issue is "card check" elections that allow unions to be aware of how employees are voting and, according to critics, allow for intimidation. The bill would only allow businesses that require secret ballots for union votes to receive state economic incentives.
House Bill 1342, sponsored by Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, won approval Tuesday from House Commerce Committee members on a voice vote following spirited debate with minority Democrats, who raised questions and objected to the measure that they say seeks to interfere in union elections.
The bill now goes to the Calendar and Rules Committee, where it will be scheduled for a House floor vote. The Senate bill is sponsored by Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin. It's scheduled to be heard next week by the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee.
Rep. Greg Vital, R-Harrison, is a bill co-sponsor, and together with Commerce Committee Chair Kevin Vaughan, R-Collierville, is shepherding Sexton's bill forward. A businessman, Vital said the legislation doesn't run afoul of federal labor law or rules.
"The bill will ensure workers in jobs funded with an investment from Tennessee taxpayers through state economic development grants will maintain their right to vote in private when determining whether they want union representation on the work site," Vital told committee members, noting the state is "doing a great job of attracting corporate relocations and expansions, and we can do more to protect workers."
The legislation comes after state lawmakers in 2021, at the urging of Republican Gov. Bill Lee, approved a nearly $900 million spending package aimed at clearing the way for Ford Motor Co.'s $5.6 billion investment into an electric vehicle and battery factory in rural West Tennessee.
Both companies that are going into the West Tennessee Site, Ford and SK Innovation, have agreed to the majority card check method, which the National Labor Relations Board allows. In that approach, a majority of workers sign a document or "card" agreeing they want the union to represent them. It's favored by unions, including the United Auto Workers. Union organizers can get workers' names, addresses, email and cellphone numbers to contact and seek their signature on a card, including go to a worker's home to discuss that. The legislation's aim is to prevent that.
Anti-union critics charge card check can lead to worker intimidation, which organized labor rejects.
The second method to decide union representation is the secret ballot voting process, which is conducted at the facility and favored by Republicans. Union representatives aren't provided contacts for workers. The UAW has said that puts them at a competitive disadvantage.
UAW efforts failed not just once, but twice in organizing at the Volkswagen complex in Chattanooga. Then-U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, a Chattanooga Republican, helped lead the opposition in a 2014 Volkswagen vote. Lee in 2019 took a high profile stance in opposing to that effort and spoke behind closed doors to Volkswagen voters at an event on company property, saying there was no need for a union. The unionization efforts again failed.
During Tuesday's House Commerce Committee meeting, Democratic minority members of House Commerce pushed back, citing multiple concerns about the bill and questioning whether it would impact the Ford project.
"There are businesses that are proud of their union involvement and have policies within their organization that require these open ballots and open voting," said Rep. Bob Freeman, a Nashville Democrat and businessman. "My concern is it's going to limit the growth. We've seen so much growth right now at this West Tennessee megasite. There's so much opportunity and potential for continued growth, and we're just going to pump the brakes and stop it. Am I missing it? The way I look at it and the companies who've called on me, it's going to give them pause to move into the site."
Vital said that the bill is in no way about stopping economic development.
"This is about protecting privacy and private votes of workers," Vital said. "Tennessee is not targeting any union. It will still give employees the choice in secret, just as we vote for representative or state Senate to choose someone in private without card check."
Vaughan said companies can still use card check if they want.
"They're still able to," Vaughan said. "It's just that they won't be considered for economic incentives.
"What this does that it says that if you want an incentive from the economic community development agency of the state of Tennessee, then your decision to organize will be held by secret ballot. When you shuck this bill down to a cob, that's where it is."
Vital and Vaughan, however, also said in response that the bill would not affect companies Ford and SK because agreements are already in place.
Tennessee AFL-CIO President Billy Dycus later told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that the bill amounts to retaliation for the Ford deal.
"They didn't like it because Ford's going to allow card check," Dycus said, "and so it's a pushback.
"Honestly, I think they didn't think the governor had enough backbone to stand up against Ford and allow this deal to go on through without putting restrictions on it," Dycus said. "Somehow, it's their way of putting restrictions on anything going forward, because they don't want to make Ford mad now that they've already invested.
"They acted like it's not going to affect anything except for anybody going forward that gets state money. It's almost like they're grandfathering in the Ford thing, which is confusing. They said Ford's already received their state money, and so that anything that's affected of theirs is effectively exempted from this."
Questions about the state's initial deal with Ford and the impact on unions were raised in 2021 by then-Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson. Smith was under indictment at the time over a kickback scheme involving taxpayer-funded constituent mail to which she later pleaded guilty. She had intended to offer a retooled version of a measure to halt the card-check method but quit the legislature after pleading guilty.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org.