Senate Judiciary expedites Right to Work resolution

Critics argue Tennessee Constitution does not need to be tampered with

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 17: Protesters take part in the AFL-CIO Workers First Caravan for Racial and Economic Justice near the U.S. Capitol on June 17, 2020 in Washington DC. The caravan circled the U.S. Capitol and national mall while honking their car horns to bring attention to their cause. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The Senate Judiciary Committee endorsed an effort Tuesday to enshrine Tennessee’s Right to Work Law in the state Constitution, continuing the process to put it on the 2022 ballot for a voter referendum.

With a 7-2 vote, the committee gave a positive recommendation to Sen. Brian Kelsey’s Senate Joint Resolution 2, which would amend the Constitution with wording protecting the right of Tennesseans to join or refuse to join a labor union or employee organization as a fundamental right. It moves next to the Senate Commerce Committee.

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

“This is enough of a civil right that it belongs in our state Constitution to protect future workers in our state,” said Kelsey, a Germantown Republican who works for Chicago-based Liberty Justice Center, which is involved in lawsuits against unions nationwide.

Kelsey declared Rule 13, stating a potential conflict of interest when he passed the resolution. He represents people trying to recoup union dues they were required to pay even though they weren’t union members.

If approved by two-thirds of the General Assembly, the measure would be placed on the November 2022 ballot where it would have to receive a majority among those voting in the gubernatorial race to take effect.

The resolution states: “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 or employee organization.”

But while it might appear friendly to labor organizations, critics say the resolution is an effort to undermine organized labor.

Critics point to numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that show workers in right to work states make    nearly $9,000 per year less than workers in other states.

Billy Dycus, president of Tennessee AFL-CIO, contends the biggest problem is not the Right to Work Law itself, which has been in effect since 1947, but the effort to amend the Constitution.

“Putting it into the Constitution makes zero sense,” Dycus said Tuesday. “Are we going to be like California, where every time there’s a hiccup,” a constitutional amendment is put to the voters?

Dycus, who did not testify in Tuesday’s meeting but plans to testify in the next Senate hearing, argues that the resolution to put the question to voters is merely an effort to “slap labor in the face again.”

Billy Dycus, president, Tennessee AFL-CIO (Photo: Submitted)
Billy Dycus, president, Tennessee AFL-CIO (Photo: Submitted)

In contrast, Beacon Impact, the advocacy arm of the Beacon Center, believes placing the law in the state Constitution is the right move.

“We believe, No. 1, that Tennessee has benefited from being right to work for many, many years, and we want that to continue for generations. And we believe the best way to protect that right for workers is to place it in the Constitution,” said Justin Owen, with Beacon Impact, told the Tennessee Lookout.

Right to work laws are coming under attack nationwide, in Virginia for instance, and the best way to preserve Tennessee’s law is to put it in the Constitution, Owen said, similarly to the constitutional amendment against a state income tax.

“We are just as proudly right to work as we are income-tax free,” Owen said.

One of the biggest complaints about the Right to Work law is that it allows non-union workers in union shops to “freeload,” obtaining the same wages and benefits as union members without paying dues.

Critics also pointed to information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showing workers in states with right to work laws make nearly $9,000 less per year than those in other states, $50,174, compared to $59,163.

The committee heard testimony from Teamsters Local 667 Chaplain Robert Seay of Memphis, who said he wouldn’t have been able to raise a family and lead a productive life without union wages.

“I think the union has made the middle class what it is since World War II,” Seay said. “It’s made our economy what it is. Unions are the right way to go. Industry and management are not hampered by it.”

Opponents of the resolution also point out Tennessee had the third highest rate of uninsured residents in the nation in 2018, just behind Alabama and Arizona, both of which are right to work states. And, according to the AFL-CIO, workplace deaths are 41% more likely in right to work states than in free-bargaining states.

Proponents of embedding the law in the state Constitution point toward efforts nationwide to repeal the Right to Work law. The Tennessee Federation of Independent Business has noted a congressional bill would wipe out right to work laws in 27 states across the country.

  We believe, No. 1, that Tennessee has benefited from being right to work for many, many years, and we want that to continue for generations.   – Justin Owen, Beacon Impact

NFIB State Director Jim Brown pointed out President Joe Biden recently said Congress should change federal law to prohibit right to work laws nationwide. He noted Vice President Kamala Harris has taken the same position.

“We ask that you go in a different direction than Washington, D.C.” and other states, Brown said, testifying before the committee.

Bradley Jackson, president of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce & Industry, also testified that one of the first questions companies ask when considering Tennessee as a location is whether the state has a right to work law. 

“Whenever we talk to business leaders, there is 80% support to embed Right to Work in the Constitution,” Jackson said. “It really gets down to Tennessee’s standing as an economic powerhouse and growth.”

State Sen. Sara Kyle, D-Memphis (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
State Sen. Sara Kyle, D-Memphis (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

During committee debate, Sen. Sara Kyle, a Memphis Democrat, argued that right to work is “a false slogan.” She contended it is designed to destroy collective bargaining and give major corporations an “upper hand” over employees.

However, Judiciary Committee Chairman Mike Bell, a Riceville Republican, said the question is about “freedom of association,” whether people are free to join a union or not.

With the Right to Work law in place since 1947, Tennessee has become the lowest-taxed state in the nation, the best place to start a small business and the No. 1 state for retirement, Bell said.

“This constitutional amendment will set Tennessee on a path to continue to win,” he said.