Commentary

Know your Tennessee Constitutional amendments

October 5, 2022 7:05 am
Two members of the Tennessee Highway Patrol Honor Guard carry one of the three original Tennessee Constitutions to a waiting vehicle for transport to the new Tennessee State Library and Archives in 2021. (Photo: Ray Di Pietro)

Two members of the Tennessee Highway Patrol Honor Guard carry one of the three original Tennessee Constitutions to a waiting vehicle for transport to the new Tennessee State Library and Archives in 2021. (Photo: Ray Di Pietro)

November’s midterm elections approach, and for Tennesseans, that means only a handful of major hot-ticket races. 

Gov. Bill Lee has opposition for his second term from Dr. Jason Martin of Nashville. Martin entered the race as a reaction to Lee’s oft-criticized — from all political segments — handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in the state, but Lee has given him plenty of fodder since 2020, from support of the recent abortion ban to the governor’s quest to bring charter schools affiliated with ultra-conservative Hillsdale College to the state. 

Two congressional races are of interest, chiefly the one for House District 5, the traditional Nashville-based Democratic seat that features a match up between Democratic State Sen. Heidi Campbell and former Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles, the Republican. In District 7, Democrat Odessa Kelly appears to be giving incumbent U.S. Rep. Mark Green a bit of hell.

Getting less notice but also important, however, are four amendments to the Tennessee Constitution on the ballot. You can — and you certainly should, before you vote — read the text of the amendments available on the Tennessee Secretary of State’s website. 

But, they are written in government-ese gobbledy gook, barely decipherable by those of us who aren’t attorneys, so I’m happy to break them down in layman’s terms. 

Several are innocuous. Amendment 2 provides for an emergency succession plan to the governor. Tennessee is the only state that does not have a plan for a temporary transition of power should the governor become medically incapacitated and unable to perform his duties. Passage of the amendment will provide for the speaker of the senate, who is also the lieutenant governor, to run the state until the time the governor can again assume his duties. 

Amendment 3 abolishes language in the state Consttution that permits slavery. Who knew a form of slavery was still permitted in Tennessee? 

Voting for amendments

  • Votes are ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ To keep the language in the Constitution as it currently is requires a ‘no’ vote. Voting ‘yes’ approves the changes.
  • Amendments are listed on the ballot immediately below gubernatorial sections.
  • For an amendment to pass, the ‘yes’ votes must be a majority of total votes cast in the governor’s race. The number of ‘yes’ votes must exceed 50% plus 1 vote of all the gubernatorial votes cast.

Amendment 4 is similarly innocuous, removing a clause that prohibits clergy members from holding office in the Tennessee General Assembly. The Supreme Court of the United States declared such a prohibition unconstitutional in 1978 and it’s not been enforced. At least two current state representatives – Rep. Harold Love Jr., D-Nashville,  and Rep. John Shaw, D-Bolivar — are pastors, with Shaw listing his calling on his official Capitol bio. 

And then, there’s Amendment 1. 

Amendment 1 is called the “Right to Work” amendment, as it would codify into the state Constitution Tennessee’s Right to Work law — which has been law since 1947. Why does a 75-year-old law need to be enshrined in the Constitution? Particularly curious is that it’s being pushed by conservatives, including former Gov. Bill Haslam and Lee, who are typically averse to amending the Constitution and consider the U.S. Constitution sacrosanct. 

Let’s dive into a little history of ‘‘Right to Work.’’ First, it doesn’t give you the right to work. You already have that right. But the Right to Work movement stemmed from the rise of labor unions in the early part of the 20th century, responsible for ending child labor and providing health care for injured workers, among other attainments. 

The National Labor Relations Act of 1935, part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Second New Deal,” allowed employees to form unions and bargain collectively for better wages and working conditions but it also included a provision making clear employees weren’t required to join a union.

Cue corporate pushback, which came in the form of the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, also known as the Taft-Hartley Act. The act gave state governments the power to outlaw union-only businesses through Right to Work laws. 

Proponents will say codifying the law into the Constitution means workers can’t be compelled to pay union dues, but that is already law. 

A white paper from the National Conference of State Legislatures lists advantages of Right to Work states that include lower unemployment rates and more business investment. Disadvantages include lower wages, a not inconsiderable factor in Tennessee, a state with historically low wages. 

Tennessee is one of five states with no state minimum wage. During the COVID pandemic in 2020, we paid our essential workers 14.9% less than employees in other industries. 

Want to know more about the Amendment 1 campaigns? Check out Vote No on 1 and Vote Yes on 1.

Right to Work states have more workers who lack insurance and the laws undermine unions, and unions already have a small presence in Tennessee, with only 4.6% of workers belonging to a union or trade association, according to the brief published by the NCSL. 

There is a great deal of money involved in the campaign for Amendment 1. Unions, including the Tennessee AFL-CIO, oppose it. Advocates include Haslam and Lee, both of whom are affiliated with family businesses that employ thousands of workers. The pair launched the ‘Vote Yes on 1’ campaign in August with a joint video. 

The leadership council for ‘Vote Yes on 1’ includes U.S. Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton, and the leaders of two large trade groups. 

As with any issue, the best tactic is to educate yourself. Both the ‘pro’ and ‘con’ campaigns for the Right to Work amendment have websites, which alone tells you this is a hot political topic — maybe the hottest of the election season. .



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Holly McCall
Holly McCall

Holly McCall has been a fixture in Tennessee media and politics for decades. She covered city hall for papers in Columbus, Ohio and Joplin, Missouri before returning to Tennessee with the Nashville Business Journal. She has served as political analyst for WZTV Fox 17 and provided communications consulting for political campaigns at all levels, from city council to presidential. Holly brings a deep wealth of knowledge about Tennessee’s political processes and players and likes nothing better than getting into the weeds of how political deals are made.

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