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Understanding Tennessee’s proposed ‘right to work’ constitutional amendment

By , Daily Memphian Updated: November 06, 2022 3:58 PM CT | Published: October 09, 2022 4:00 AM CT
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Tennessee voters have the opportunity this month to pass a constitutional amendment that would ban all-union workplaces and require unions to provide services for which workers do not have to pay. 

Very little in Tennesseans’ lives would change if the so-called “right to work” law were added to the constitution because it’s been the law in Tennessee for 75 years. But it’s much harder to change the constitution than it is to change a standard law.

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Supporters of “right to work” laws say they are good for business and that they give workers the right not to join a union and not to be fired for their membership or non-membership in one.

Federal law already protects those rights.

Opponents argue the laws undermine unions’ finances because unions are required to represent all workers at a given workplace, but workers aren’t required to pay for the services they provide.

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Here’s what the amendment says:

“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.”

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A “yes” vote indicates support for the amendment. A “no” vote wouldn’t repeal the law, but it would keep it out of the constitution.

The “right to work” amendment is the first of four constitutional questions on the November ballot. They all come directly after the choices for governor. Voters can’t skip voting for governor if they want their votes on constitutional amendments to count.

Pro-business vs. anti-worker

Placing “right to work” in the state constitution has been one of the top priorities of outgoing state Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) during his entire tenure.

Gov. Bill Lee and former Gov. Bill Haslam are among the leaders of the Vote Yes On 1 campaign, arguing “right to work” has stimulated Tennessee’s pro-business economy.

They credit the law as one of the reasons for job creation and corporate relocations and expansions to Tennessee.

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“Bill 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,” Haslam said in a video the two recorded at the Tennessee State Capitol.

“What we’re doing right now in Tennessee is working,” Lee said.

But the labor movement says the term is misleading and that its supporters are misrepresenting what it does.

“While the term ‘Right to Work’ sounds promising, it’s actually harmful to both union AND non-union workers alike,” wrote Alyssa Hansen of the Tennessee AFL-CIO. “Having existed in our state for 75 years, ‘Right to Work’ laws are intended to silence workers’ voices in negotiations for fair wages, safe workplaces and good benefits.”

Hansen noted that both Lee and Haslam are wealthy businessmen and that both earned fortunes in family businesses they didn’t start.

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Haslam is a billionaire whose father founded Pilot Corp., the truck-stop chain. Bill Haslam eventually became president of the company. The Tennessee Lookout reported Lee’s net worth was about $200 million when he ran for governor in 2018. He worked for Lee Co., the family HVAC and home services company, eventually serving as president and CEO.

“(I)t’s abundantly clear who is behind the push: corporate special interest groups, big business and greedy politicians who are laser-focused on cementing their power and influence for generations to come,” Hansen wrote.

Union workers make 10.2% more money than their peers, according to a congressional report published this year. Unionization raises wages by 17.3% for Black workers and 23.1% for Latino workers.

“Unions can play a critical role in narrowing racial and gender economic disparities,” the report states.

Unionization rates are near historic lows around the country, and Tennessee is one of the least-unionized states. About 4.4% of Tennessee workers were unionized in 2020 and 5.1% in 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Union contracts covered 5.2% and 5.9% of workers during those years.

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The national AFL-CIO says workers in “right to work” states have lower wages, more workplace deaths, higher uninsured rates and more discrimination complaints.

The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947

The labor movement has been pushing against “right to work” laws ever since Congress gave states the permission to pass them in 1947.

That 1947 law, known as the Taft-Hartley Act, weakened the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which was — and remains — the most important piece of legislation in the labor movement’s history.

The law allowed workers not to join a union, but it did allow unions to charge workers for services. Most importantly, it allowed states to ban union shops, workplaces where all workers are union members or are required to join within a specific period of time.

Unions are required to serve all employees, whether members or not. If a worker is not a member, they don’t negotiate with management for their contract or serve on union committees. They do, however, work under the contract the union negotiated.

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“Your union has the duty to represent all employees — whether members of the union or not — fairly, in good faith, and without discrimination,” states a National Labor Relations Board webpage.

“This duty applies to virtually every action that a union may take in dealing with an employer as your representative, including collective bargaining, handling grievances, and operating exclusive hiring halls,” the NLRB states. “For example, a union which represents you cannot refuse to process a grievance because you have criticized union officials or because you are not a member of the union.”


Tennessee Right to Work Bill Lee Bill Haslam Brian Kelsey
Ian Round

Ian Round

Ian Round is The Daily Memphian’s state government reporter based in Nashville. He came to Tennessee from Maryland, where he reported on local politics for Baltimore Brew. He earned a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Maryland in December 2019.


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