Commentary: Right to work laws and the sanctity of Tennessee’s constitution

Car decorated for AFL-CIO Protect Our Workers caravan. (Photo: AFL-CIO Facebook)
Car decorated for AFL-CIO Protect Our Workers caravan. (Photo: AFL-CIO Facebook)

On the same day that it joined the union nearly 225 years ago, the newly-minted state of Tennessee also adopted its first constitution.

Over the course of the next century, it underwent two major revisions, one in 1834 and the second 1870. The  pair of revisions addressed critical and timely issues facing the state, including the abolition of slavery after the Civil War. 

By the time the 20th century reached its halfway mark, the Tennessee state constitution had the honor of being known as “the nation’s oldest unamended state constitution.”

According to the Tennessee Secretary of State’s office, the 1870 version of our state constitution finally saw its first amendment in over 80 years in 1953.  During the next 68 years, a total of nine amendments would eventually be added to our state constitution. 

Think about that for a minute. 

A document that has been used in its current form for over 150 years has seen less than 10 additions. 

While it is by no means perfect and has its flaws, our Tennessee Constitution is a sacred document that should only be amended in very specific circumstances. If our state’s forefathers knew how the Republican supermajority is treating this piece of history, they would roll over in their graves. 

Let me back up briefly to the second half of the 111th Tennessee General Assembly.

Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

Last January, State Senator Brian Kelsey introduced legislation that proposed amending the Tennessee Constitution to add our state’s “Right to Work” law.

It passed both chambers and must do the same by a two-thirds majority again this year before going on the ballot next November. 

This effort demonstrates yet another example of misplaced priorities; some legislators are more worried about lining the pockets of corporate special interest groups than improving the quality of life for hardworking Tennesseans, especially in the middle of a pandemic.

As I testified before the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee last year, this harmful and dangerous law has been on the books in the Volunteer State since 1947. 

Without getting into too much of a labor history lesson, “Right to Work” laws are, in a word, wrong. 

These harmful policies strip workers from having a voice in negotiating wages, benefits and safe workplaces.

Sen. Kelsey and his allies also love to claim that “Right to Work” laws are about workers’ freedom to choose whether or not to belong to a union. 

But guess what? Federal law already makes it illegal to force someone to join a union.

The truth of the matter is that “Right to Work” is about freedom only in this way: it takes away the freedom of working people to join together.

I could go on and on about the disadvantages of “Right to Work” laws, but I’ll wrap up my list with this fun fact: this effort currently underway is unnecessary, unfair government overreach that distracts from the real and serious issues facing our state. 

Right to Work laws strip workers from negotiating wages, benefits and safe workplaces, and federal law already makes it illegal to force someone to join a union.

Given how quick the Republican supermajority is to throw a fit when the federal government tries to meddle in state business, you would think they wouldn’t want to do the same to their constituents and their workplaces. 

Evidently, those who govern feel differently. 

It’s clear that “Right to Work” laws serve absolutely no benefit in the 28 states that have them.

Attempting to enshrine this harmful law in our state constitution is a waste of taxpayer dollars on a partisan crusade that’s designed solely to score political points and amending the constitution to cater to the policy wish list of either political party sets a dangerous precedent that could be difficult to reverse. 

I would urge the members of the General Assembly to consider this: If Tennessee’s Right to Work law is enshrined in the state constitution, this effectively opens the door for any issue to be included in this sacred document.

Is that the legacy that you want to leave to those who will represent our great state in the decades to come? 

If so, the Tennessee Constitution could soon be known as “the nation’s most amended state constitution.”

The decision is yours.