Lee chairs right to work amendment while tiptoeing on Ford question

By: - November 22, 2021 6:14 pm
Gov. Bill Lee at a July press conference. (Photo: John Partipilo))

Gov. Bill at a July 2021 press conference.(Photo: John Partipilo)

Gov. Bill Lee will chair a Yes on 1 campaign to put the state’s right to work law in the Tennessee Constitution, but when it comes to Ford Motor Co., the governor won’t say whether he’ll actively campaign against unionization at the West Tennessee plant scheduled to open in 2025.

Lee joined business groups and Republican state leaders Monday at Vireo Systems in Madison to start the governor’s push to pass the constitutional amendment when the 2022 election is held. The law, which says workers can’t be discriminated against regardless of union status, must receive a majority vote of those who participate in the gubernatorial election to become part of the state Constitution.   

The law has been in place for some 75 years, but supporters say it should become part of the Constitution to sidestep a national effort to repeal right to work laws and to prevent the Legislature from ending it, even though it remained in place through Democratic and Republican control of the General Assembly and governor’s office.

Lee reiterated claims Monday that memorializing the right to work law in the Constitution will help Tennessee maintain a strong business environment and economy.

Tennessee’s Right to Work law has been in place for 75 yers, but Gov. Bill Lee says putting the law in the Tennessee Constitution will help the state maintain a strong business environment.

State Rep. Chris Todd, a Madison County Republican who sponsored the measure in the House, said the move gives “extra assurance” the law will be protected. State Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Germantown Republican who initiated the push for the constitutional amendment, faces a five-count federal indictment for allegedly funneling money from his state account to this failed 2016 congressional bid. He didn’t attend Monday’s press conference. 

Ford officials have said they will leave unionization up to the United Auto Workers and employees when the plant starts hiring an expected 5,800 workers at a $5.6 billion electric truck and battery facility at the Memphis Regional Megasite in Haywood County.

Former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander and former U.S. Sen. Bob Corker actively campaigned against unionization at other auto manufacturing facilities in Tennessee, including the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga. But Lee sidestepped questions Monday when asked if will work publicly against unionization of the Ford facility.

“My active role is going to be to ensure that in Tennessee the workers have the choice as to the environment that they work, so that’s what this is about, and that’s what should happen and will happen on that site, the workers will decide,” Lee said.


United Auto Workers of Nashville President C.L. Smith has said the UAW will have a presence at the Ford facility in West Tennessee. And AFL-CIO President Billy Dycus predicted Monday the Ford plant will be a union shop.

Dycus contends inserting the right to work law into the Constitution is a waste of time and money, especially since it affects only 6.4% of the state’s workforce.

“It doesn’t have any logic to it other than you are anti-union,” Dycus said.

Dycus points out the right to work law applies only to people whose employer has a collective bargaining agreement with a labor union. He argues the law allows companies to keep wages and benefits low, which gives the business community bragging rights.

“(Lee) knows the truth about what’s coming with Ford and UAW and Memphis and that megasite. He knows, but he can’t afford to let his political base think that he’s for unions,” Dycus said.

Lee told reporters Monday his administration persuaded Ford to come here by showing the company Tennessee has the right tax structure, business environment and workforce strategy. The governor consistently points to low taxes, low business regulation and increased vocational and technical training as keys to attracting business.

(Lee) knows the truth about what's coming with Ford and UAW and Memphis and that megasite. He knows, but he can't afford to let his political base thin that he's for unions.

– Billy Dycus, president, AFL-CIO Tennessee

“They certainly know that we are a right to work state and that we have a commitment that workers have the right to choose the work environment that they’re in. Ford understands that. I certainly didn’t specifically talk about that with Ford,” Lee said.

During a late October special session on COVID-19 legislation, Ford Motor Co. balked at provisions that would stop it from requiring employees to wear masks to prevent the spread of the virus. 

Legislators changed their bill drastically in the waning hours of the special session but still didn’t allay all the concerns of business groups upset that the General Assembly created a private right of action that could let employees sue if companies asked them to get a COVID-19 vaccination.

In fact, Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson said that night the Senate needed to pass the bill so it could be worked out in a conference committee. Most of that panel’s work was done in secret.

An Associated Press story showed legal counsel for the governor warned him and the Legislature that the bill’s provisions on masks in public schools would violate the Americans with Disabilities Act. Lawmakers passed the measure and Lee signed it anyway.

Questioned about that situation Monday, Lee noted that when he signed the legislation into law he said there were matters that needed to be resolved. The governor reiterated Monday his administration plans to correct those problems when the 2022 legislative session starts.

“On balance, I agree with the provisions in that bill,” Lee said.

A federal judge placed an injunction on the law after parents of disabled students filed suit to stop it from taking effect.

Also Tuesday, the governor signed an executive order designed to increase the number of trucks allowed on Tennessee roads and the weight of those vehicles to improve the supply chain, which has been hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Lee said he and 14 other governors are calling on President Joe Biden to dial back federal transportation rules.

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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.