Tennessee voters will decide whether to add Tennessee’s “right-to-work” law to the state constitution next fall after the proposed constitutional amendment passed the state House of Representatives in a 67-24 vote on Thursday.
The “right-to-work” law prohibits discrimination against workers based on their decision whether or not to join a union. Advocates of the constitutional amendment say it will help protect Tennessee’s ability to recruit quality jobs to the state. Opponents say it will hurt organized labor in Tennessee.
State Republican leadership on Thursday praised passage of the legislation — the culmination of a two-year process.
“Solidifying this essential concept through this amendment will ingrain this key principle of Tennessee business into our constitution,” said House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville. “This will strengthen our economic standing, support our current and future workforces, and also ensure this state remains open for business.”
“Tennessee’s ‘right-to-work’ laws have been critical to producing the economic growth our state has experienced over the last decade,” added Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge.
The issue now goes to Tennessee voters. To be added to the state constitution, the proposal will need to be approved by a majority of voters in the 2022 governor’s election. A public survey on the issue conducted by the Beacon Center of Tennessee in late 2019 found that 68% of Tennesseans support the “right-to-work” policy, while only 13% are opposed and 19% are undecided.
Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, and Rep. Chris Todd, R-Jackson, shepherded the proposal through the state legislature, securing the required two-thirds approval in both chambers.
“This amendment will guarantee future generations of Tennessee workers their right to work regardless of whether they choose to join a union,” Kelsey said.
Tennessee’s “right-to-work” law has been on the books since 1947. It provides that employers and other entities may not hire or fire workers based on their decision to join or not to join a labor union. Currently 27 other states have “right-to-work” laws, and nine have added the provision to their state constitutions.
During his address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday evening, President Joe Biden asked Congress to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize Act. The PRO Act would supersede state “right-to-work” laws in the 19 states where they are not in the state constitution, including in Tennessee.
“With ‘right to work’ under attack by politicians in D.C. and other states, it’s imperative that we send a message loud and clear that we support worker freedom in Tennessee,” said Justin Owen, CEO of Beacon Impact. “And there is no better way to send that message than by placing ‘right to work’ in the state constitution.”
Throughout the two-year process of passage, House and Senate Democrats have criticized the effort, saying the statute allows Tennesseans “the right to work — for less.”
Billy Dycus, president of the Tennessee AFL-CIO, has been a vocal opponent of the measure throughout the committee process over two years. On Thursday, Dycus said in a statement that legislators’ votes side with corporate special interests and against working families.
“Today, 67 representatives voted to enshrine low wages and dangerous workplaces in our state constitution. 67 representatives showed that they support amending the constitution for a political agenda, setting a dangerous precedent for our state. 67 representatives showed their absolute disdain for hard-working Tennesseans, especially those who have sacrificed so much throughout the course of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Dycus wrote.
But business leaders from the Chamber of Commerce and National Federation of Independent Business supported the effort and praised its passage on Thursday.
“Our ‘right-to-work’ law, in place since 1947, unfortunately, is under attack in Congress with the U.S. House’s recent passage of the PRO Act,” said Jim Brown, president of NFIB’s Tennessee chapter. “NFIB members across Tennessee believe workers should have that choice, and now Tennessee voters will be able to vote on adding this important constitutional protection in 2022.”
Bradley Jackson, president of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry, agreed.
“The Tennessee Chamber and our business community has remained strongly supportive of our status as a ‘right-to- work’ state, which is a key component establishing the Volunteer State as friendly to business,” Jackson said. “Embedding right to work permanently in our constitution sends a strong message moving forward that Tennessee is and always will be ready for business.”