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United Auto Workers picket outside of John Deere Des Moines Works on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021, in Ankeny, Iowa. The Deere workers' strike began at midnight. (Kelsey Kremer /The Des Moines Register via AP)

With more jobs than workers today, Tennessee labor unions say they are positioned to make needed gains for workers in wages, benefits and union representation.

But the No. 2 labor leader in the country told AFL-CIO leaders in Nashville on Monday that Tennessee's right-to-work laws continue the South's history of trying to take advantage of workers and hurt their ability to make a fair wage.

"Right to work is a direct decedent of Jim Crow and it should have no place in our society, much less in the state Constitution," AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Fred Redmond said during the opening of the Tennessee AFL-CIO annual convention on Monday. "Workers are fed up and America is taking notice of our collective action. Working people are waking up and understanding the value of labor unions. "

Last week, more than 10,000 John Deere & Co. workers went on strike, the first major walkout for the agricultural equipment maker in 30 years. Earlier this month, 1,400 Kellogg's plant workers, including hundreds in Memphis, went on strike over forced overtime amid rising corporate profits.

Spurred by a worsening labor shortage and rising corporate profits, as many as 100,000 workers have walked out or are threatening to do so this month in what some have labeled "Striketober."

Redmond said he is encouraged that a majority of Americans responding to a Pew Research Center poll this summer said labor unions have a positive effect on the way things are going in the country. Redmond said Dr. Martin Luther King, the Atlanta civil rights leader who was murdered in Memphis after supporting striking sanitation workers, said the greatest change in America has come from the civil rights movement and organized labor.

While unionized workers are in better position now to negotiate higher wages, the worker shortage so far has not necessarily aided more unionizing efforts in the Chattanooga area. Although President Biden has appointed a more labor-friendly National Labor Relations Board, few union organizing efforts are underway in Tennessee.

Business groups insist workers deserve a choice and the low rate of union membership in Tennessee — the third lowest of all states — helps business recruitment.

Bradley Jackson, president of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said workers in Tennessee are independent-minded and want to be able to choose whether to join a union, even when a majority of workers at their job site vote to unionize where they work. Jackson said workers in many high-profile union elections, including UAW organizing efforts at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga and the Nissan plant in Smyrna, have been unsuccessful because many Tennessee workers are wary about paying for outside representation.

Tennessee is one of 28 states with right-to-work laws that make it illegal for workplaces to require mandatory labor union membership for employees as a condition for employment. Tennessee has had its right-to-work law since 1947, but the business groups and Tennessee's GOP-controlled Legislature are trying to put the measure in the Tennessee Constitution to help enshrine such labor laws for the future.

Least unionized states

The share of all U.S. workers represented by labor unions rose 0.5% last year to 10.8%, but the unionization rate in Tennessee last year was less than half of the U.S. average. The states with the lowest share of their workforce presented by a labor union are:

1. South Carolina - 2.8%

2. North Carolina - 3.9%

3. Tennessee - 5.1%

4. Virginia - 5.4%

5. Utah - 5.4%

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

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Photo by Dave Flessner / AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Fred Redmond addresses the Tennessee AFL-CIO annual convention on Monday.

The Tennessee General Assembly twice approved a constitutional amendment to include the right-to-work requirement in the state constitution and Tennessee voters will decide on the proposal in the November 2022 election.

"We know right to work has been one of the most important factors that has driven the economic growth of Tennessee," Jackson said. "It's one of the first things that many prospective businesses look at when they are considering relocating here and we're now seeing states even in the Northeast that have recently passed right-to-work laws to be competitive as a state."

Tennessee State Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, sponsor of the constitutional amendment, said he remains confident Tennessee voters will approve the measure to put the right-to-work law into the state constitution.

"Our right to work law has helped attract thousands of jobs to Tennessee — from the Volkswagen plant in East Tennessee to the new Ford plant in West Tennessee," Kelsey said. "Putting this law into the state constitution will protect future generations of Tennesseans to choose whether they want to join a union or not. It ensures that both union members and nonmembers cannot be discriminated against based on their decision."

But union leaders say fewer unions mean less pay. Tennessee's per capita income averages nearly 20% below the U.S. average and most of the states with the highest share of non-union workers tend to have lower average pay, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

During the pandemic last year, the number of union members in Tennessee fell by 13.3% to 117,000 workers at the end of 2020, compared with 135,000 union members a year earlier, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The share of Tennessee workers represented by unions fell from 5.5% in 2019 to to 5.1% last year, above only North and South Carolina among the 50 states.

Nationwide, the number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions, at 14.3 million in 2020, was down by 321,000, or 2.2 percent, from 2019.

Redmond said the labor market has shifted this year to workers' advantage and labor unions can help workers regain lost wages and benefits. Redmond, the son of a sharecropper from the Delta, said he knows personally the benefit of a union shop. When his father got a union shop with Reynolds Aluminum near Chicago, "it changed everything for our family" buying their first home and moving into the middle class.

"We're here to strengthen the labor movement, to strengthen democracy and to make sure that every person has a chance for a better life." he said.

Billy Dycus, president of the Tennessee AFL-CIO Labor Council, said organized labor "is probably in one of the better bargaining positions we've been in in a long while simply because of the labor shortage.

"If companies don't want to pay more, their people are either going to leave and go to work somewhere else or those that don't are going to be more likely to want to organize in order to force the employer to make improvements,"he said.

In Chattanooga, the job listing service Chattanoogacalling.com currently lists 21,546 open jobs, or more than twice as many jobs at the number of unemployed persons looking for work in the 6-county Chattanooga metro area. Statewide, Tennessee's career website, Jobs4TN.gov.,lists 3.7 jobs for every unemployed worker in the state.

Dycus said the AFL-CIO will fight aggressively to defeat the ballot proposal to put Tennessee's right-to-work law in the state constitution.

"We understand it's an uphill battle and we know business groups want to make sure we remain a low-wage state, but we're going to take it on and make sure the people of Tennessee are properly educated about what right to work really means," he said. "I think people are tired of the government intruding into private-sector workforce issues."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.

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