Opinion: Tennessee takes lead in protecting a private vote for union organization

AP File Photo/Erik Schelziig / Workers at the Nissan plant in Smyrna, Tenn., walk by a Nissan Altima sedan, May 15, 2012. A group of employees, out of the thousands who work at the Nissan assembly plant, voted 62-9 against unionization in March of this year.

A private election, whether it be to choose a president of the United States or representation by a union at a workplace, seems like a no-brainer.

But until Gov. Bill Lee signed a bill into law last week, Tennessee workers could not make that choice where it came to union representation. Now at least those people at workplaces receiving taxpayer-funded state economic incentives will have the satisfaction that their ballot is private.

As amazing as it may be to contemplate, the Volunteer State is the first in the country to give its employees that right.

In 2011, a law signed by then-Gov. Bill Haslam said that secret-ballot elections were the preferred way to designate support for a union. An alternate method, known as "card check," simply requires organizers to get a worker's signature on a piece of paper. When a union has acquired signed cards from more than half of the employees, an employer can agree to recognize the union as an official representative but does not have to, triggering an election.

The problem, then state-Sen. Mark Green, R-Clarksville, said in 2013 is that the "card check" method leaves workers open to intimidation. Union organizers are allowed to collect the contact numbers of employees and even solicit their homes for their signature.

"You've got seven guys standing around you who work with you every day and they're saying, 'hey, sign this card,'" he said. "We don't elect the governor that way, we don't elect our representatives that way, the ballot is secret. That's democracy."

The issue bubbled up at the time because the United Auto Workers labor union was working to unionize the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga. Though reports said VW would want a formal vote by workers, no decision had been announced.

When a vote did occur in February 2014, it was by secret ballot, and the union lost 712-626. A second attempt at unionization by all plant workers also lost, 833-776, in a private vote in 2019.

However, as workers rights supporters feared when it was announced in 2021 that the state had approved a nearly $900 million spending package to spur Ford's $5.6 billion investment into an electric vehicle and battery factory in rural West Tennessee, both Ford and battery maker SK Innovation agreed on the "card check" method to determine union representation.

The 2023 bill was sponsored by House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, and was co-sponsored by state Rep. Greg Vital, R-Harrison.

"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 House Commerce Committee members, adding the state is "doing a great job of attracting corporate relocations and expansions, and we can do more to protect workers."

Democrats, the same party that rails annually about protecting the privacy of local, state and national ballots, opposed the measure.

State Rep. Bob Freeman, D-Nashville, opined that a private vote would somehow "limit growth"; in fact, he suggested it might "pump the brakes and stop it."

Nothing in the law, though, prevents unions going forward from using the "card check" method to attempt to unionize a business. The business just wouldn't be eligible for state incentives.

Union officials claimed — with probably some truth — that the passage of the bill was in retaliation for the expected "card check" method eventually being used to determine representation at Ford. However, some legislators had tried to tie the measure to the Ford deal at the time it was consummated.

Truth or not, nothing so consequential and controversial as union representation at a plant should be left to less than a private ballot.

Vincent Vernuccio, senior labor policy advisor for Workers for Opportunity, praised the first-in-the-nation legislation in a news release.

"This historic bill is a testament to the bipartisan commitment of Tennessee legislators to protect workplace freedom in the Volunteer State," he said. "Just like Tennesseans enjoy the right to privacy at the ballot box, Tennessee workers deserve the right to decide union representation through a secret ballot vote. The right to vote is just as important as the right to work."

Like we mentioned at the outset, it should be a no-brainer. We hope other states desirous of protecting workers' rights will follow Tennessee's lead.