Understanding Tennessee’s Proposed “Right to Work” Constitutional Amendment – Memphis Local, Sports, Business & Food News

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Voters in Tennessee have the opportunity this month to pass a constitutional amendment that would ban fully unionized workplaces and require unions to provide services that workers don’t have to pay for.

Very little in the lives of Tennessees would change if the so-called “right to work” law were added to the constitution, because it has been the law of Tennessee for 75 years. But changing the constitution is much more difficult than changing a standard law.


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Proponents of ‘right to work’ laws say they are good for business and give workers the right not to join a union and not be fired for joining or not joining to a union.

Federal law already protects these rights.

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


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Here is what the amendment says:

“It is unlawful for any person, corporation, association or this State or its political subdivisions to refuse or attempt to refuse employment to any person by reason of membership, affiliation, resignation or refusal to join or to join any union or employee organization.


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A “yes” vote indicates support for the amendment. A “no” vote would not repeal the law, but would keep it outside the constitution.

The “right to work” amendment is the first of four constitutional questions in the November ballot. They all come directly after gubernatorial picks. Voters cannot skip the vote for governor if they want their votes on constitutional amendments to count.

Pro-corporate versus anti-worker

Placing the “right to work” in the state constitution has been a top priority for incumbent Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) throughout his tenure.

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

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


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“Bill and I both know that our ‘Right to Work’ law has been a key component in the effort to create well-paying jobs in 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 its supporters misrepresent what it does.

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

Hansen noted that Lee and Haslam are wealthy businessmen and both have made fortunes in family businesses that they did not 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 that Lee’s net worth was around $200 million when he ran for governor in 2018. He worked for Lee Co., the family’s HVAC and service company in home, before becoming president and CEO.

“(I) it is abundantly clear who is behind the push: corporate special interest groups, big business and greedy politicians laser-focused on cementing their power and influence for generations to come. “, wrote Hansen.

Unionized workers earn 10.2% more money than their peers, according to a congressional report released this year. Unionization raises wages by 17.3% for black workers and 23.1% for Latino workers.

“Trade unions can play a vital role in reducing racial and gender economic disparities,” the report says.

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


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

The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947

The labor movement has opposed “right to work” laws since Congress authorized states to pass them in 1947.

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

The law allowed workers not to join a union, but allowed unions to charge workers for services. More importantly, it allowed states to ban unionized stores, workplaces where all workers are members of a union or are required to join one within a specified time limit.

Unions are required to serve all employees, whether they are members or not. If a worker is not a member, he does not negotiate his contract with management and does not sit on union committees. However, they work within the framework of the contract negotiated by the union.


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

“This duty applies to virtually any action a union may take to deal with an employer as your representative, including collective bargaining, handling grievances and operating exclusive hiring halls,” says the NLRB. “For example, a union representing you cannot refuse to deal with a grievance because you have criticized union officials or because you are not a union member.

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