NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Tennesseans heading to the polls will decide whether to amend the state’s Constitution in four different ways. One of those amendments deals with the state’s status as a “right to work” state.
Amendment 1 seeks to add the following language to the Tennessee Constitution:
“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.”
The amendment would alter Article 11 of one of the state’s founding documents, which includes “Miscellaneous Provisions” such as defining marriage between one man and one woman (Section 18), protections for religious observances (Section 15) and restrictions on lotteries (Section 5).
Tennessee has had “right to work” provisions outlining labor standards since 1947, when the legislature added the statutes to the Tennessee Code Annotated (TCA). Four parts outline how the state cannot force anyone to join a union as a condition of employment or force an employee to pay dues to a union and what the penalty for such an offense would be.
- TCA 50-1-201: “It is unlawful for any person, firm, corporation or association of any kind 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 of any kind.”
- TCA 50-1-202: “It is unlawful for any person, firm, corporation or association of any kind to enter into any contract, combination or agreement, written or oral, providing for exclusion from employment of any person because of membership in, affiliation with, resignation from, or refusal to join or affiliate with any labor union or employee organization of any kind.”
- TCA 50-1-203: “It is unlawful for any person, firm, corporation or association of any kind to exclude from employment any person by reason of the person’s payment of or failure to pay dues, fees, assessments or other charges to any labor union or employee organization of any kind.”
- TCA 50-1-204: “(a) Any person, firm, corporation or association of any kind violating any of the provisions of this part commits a Class A misdemeanor.
- “(b) Each day that any person, firm, corporation or association of any kind remains in violation of this part is deemed to be a separate and distinct offense, punishable in accordance with this section.”
The push to add “right to work” provisions to the Constitution are tied to federal efforts to reform labor laws, according to those with the Yes on 1 campaign, which supports the amendment.
Proponents of the amendment say it is important to enshrine the individual freedoms of employees in the Volunteer State, particularly since there has been movement from some Democrats at the federal level to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act. The legislation, passed by the House of Representatives in March of 2021, would expand several labor protections related to collective bargaining and employees’ rights to organize. The Senate has not passed its version of the bill.
“What Yes on 1 does is it ensures that no worker can be compelled to join any employee organization or union,” said Bradley Jackson, the president and CEO of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry and member of the Yes on 1 Executive Committee. “It’s about their individual right and their freedom to be able to do that.”
Jackson acknowledged Tennessee’s 75-year-old right to work law but added he and the Yes on 1 campaign would like to see more robust protections for employees’ individual freedoms.
“The statute has been on Tennessee’s books since 1947, but we think it’s important to embed it permanently into the Constitution, because there have been efforts at the federal level in Congress to outright repeal right to work in all states, including about 17 other states that have right to work. Embedding it into Tennessee’s Constitution really enshrines it there and ensures employee freedom will last.”
Further, Jackson said, the right to work has long been an economic draw for Tennessee, assisting in business and industry recruitment in the state.
“Right to work has been fundamental, really, for Tennessee’s business climate and our economic growth to create high-quality jobs to Tennesseans, so that’s why the Chamber is supporting Yes on 1,” he said. “We think Tennessee, although it does have a great business climate, we’ve also le the country in high-quality, high-paying job growth being a right to work state.”
Opponents of the amendment say the issue doesn’t help the workers and is just another push for Tennessee leaders to keep the state low in rankings for wages and that Tennessee’s right-to-work status has never been at risk.
“It’s our feeling that Big Business is trying to take a bigger hand in people’s wages,” said TN AFL-CIO President Billy Dycus.
Dycus questioned why organizers are now trying to bring this issue to the forefront, as union leaders and right-to-work opponents have never sought to overturn the law since it was enacted.
“Why try to put it in the Constitution when we’ve never challenged right to work, though there have been many opportunities to in the past,” he told News 2. “Why now? It’s not just about unions.”
Dycus said this measure would affect less than 10% of the total workforce in Tennessee, as the majority of workers aren’t involved with unions.
“It’s ironic that we’re trying to put something in the Constitution that affects just a little bit less than 10 percent of the workforce in the state of Tennessee,” he said. “The other 90-plus percent are at-will employees, yet we want to make the argument that right to work is good for business in the state of Tennessee. That does not add up. If the state of Tennessee was 100 percent union, then you might have an argument, but the state of Tennessee is not.”
He further claimed adding this measure to the state Constitution would also not keep it in the event the PRO Act passes the Senate.
“It’s odd that they want all of a sudden to use the Biden Administration trying to force a legislative agenda that’s going to do away with right to work across the country,” he said. “If they [the federal government] do, it doesn’t matter what we’ve got in our Constitution—it’ll be illegal anyway.”
According to Dycus, Tennessee’s business-friendly state doesn’t stem from its right-to-work status.
“Tennessee’s a business-friendly state, one, because of its location in this country, and two, because of the hard-working people in the state of Tennessee, who don’t get enough recognition for the fact that we have a good work ethic, and we believe in an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work,” he said. “That goes against it. If you’re trying to say, ‘right to work,’ and it only means you have a right to belong or not to belong to a union, how is it that right to work makes [Tennessee] business-friendly when it only affects less than 10 percent of the workforce?”
“Right to work is a great saying. Everybody has a right to work, but ‘right to work’ does not apply to the at-will employed people in this state, and it only applies to people that want to belong or not belong to a labor union,” he added. “It’s just another in a long line of what we’ve seen in the state of Tennessee of making sure that we remain a state of low wages and where business has more control than the working person.”
At-will employment is a doctrine that allows an employer and employee to terminate employment at any time with or without cause. While at-will employment does require cause cited for termination, employers still cannot fire employees for any reason prohibited by law, such as on the basis of race, religion, disability or national origin, among others.
Early voting continues in Tennessee until Thursday, Nov. 3.
Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 8.