Governor draws rebuke with comments on Amendment 1

By: - October 26, 2022 2:34 pm
Screengrab of former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and Gov. Bill Lee in a video for the "Yes on 1" campaign.

Screengrab of former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and Gov. Bill Lee in a video for the “Yes on 1” campaign. Lee is drawing criticism over his Tuesday statement on Amendment 1, the “right to work” amendment.

In the midst of early voting, Gov. Bill Lee is urging people to support constitutional amendment 1, saying the state’s 75-year-old right-to-work law is “under attack,” a statement drawing condemnation from opponents.

Lee issued a statement this week contending “union bosses, (President) Joe Biden, and Democrats in Tennessee want to repeal our right-to-work law … and force Tennesseans to bend the knee to union bosses.”

His words are drawing heavy criticism from Democrats who say they are disingenuous at best and full of lies at the worst.

The Amendment 1 question asks voters to decide whether they support language stating it is illegal to deny employment to a person based on membership in a union or refusal to join a union.

Lee says in his statement if the measure isn’t enshrined into the Tennessee Constitution, Tennesseans “will be forced to fall in line, pay union dues, and join organizations that give payouts to political cronies.”

Lee wraps up his statement by saying states with right-to-work laws have better wage, employment and population growth, though he doesn’t provide any statistics or proof.

Democrats across the state are miffed that the governor would make statements they contend are false in the middle of early voting and as the Nov. 8 Election Day approaches.

Gubernatorial candidate Jason Martin says on Twitter voting against Amendment 1 is the “only way to protect workers from well funded corporations.”

He points out, “Right-to-work is already state law. We need to protect the workplace, not cater to special interest groups.”

Critics of the governor believe his statement is an exaggeration.

For instance, the state’s right-to-work law applies to only about 10% of the workforce, those who are employed in union shops such as the General Motors plant in Spring Hill, according to Tennessee AFL-CIO President Billy Dycus. Even in those plants, employees cannot be required to join the union and pay dues, yet they receive the same pay and benefits as union members negotiated in collective bargaining agreements.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Vincent Dixie says the governor’s statement is filled with falsehoods.

“It’s not misleading, it’s a lie. It is a blatant lie,” Dixie, a Nashville Democrat says.

Foremost, even if the amendment were to fail at the ballot box, the state’s right-to-work law would remain in place, Dixie points out. Democrats in the Legislature have made no moves to try to repeal the law.

Right-to-work is a misnomer. What that really is is the right to work you to death, because it’s pro-big corporations, and that’s who it protects. It does nothing to protect the employees, the workers, the common people.

– Rep. Vincent Dixie, Chair, House Democratic Caucus

Republicans, however, have claimed that the amendment is necessary because of moves in Virginia to undermine the right-to-work law there. About half the states in the nation have such laws.

An effort to enshrine it in Virginia’s Constitution failed in 2016, but since then even Democratic lawmakers have been loath to overturn the state’s right-to-work law, in part because of pressure from business groups and corporations that want to keep the law in place, according to reports.

Gov. Lee’s biggest economic recruiting coup since taking office is a deal with Ford Motor Co. and SK Innovation to build a $5.8 billion electric truck and battery plant at the state’s 4,100-acre Memphis Regional Megasite in Haywood County. The Ford plant is expected to be a union shop, but that didn’t stop the governor from taking shots at unionized labor, something that hasn’t gone unnoticed by Democrats.

“Right-to-work is a misnomer,” Dixie says. “What that really is is the right to work you to death, because it’s pro-big corporations, and that’s who it protects. It does nothing to protect the employees, the workers, the common people.”

Contradicting Lee’s statement about higher wage growth, Dixie maintains that research shows jobs with union backing have an 18-20% higher wage, even for those who don’t belong to the union.

In order to pass the amendment, as well as three others on the ballot, more than half of those who vote in this fall’s gubernatorial race would have to support them.

The constitutional amendments appear to be receiving favorable reviews, at least based on one new report.

A survey of 500 Tennesseans conducted by Cygnal, which received a B-plus in FiveThirtyEight’s pollster ratings, found 58% of Tennesseans strongly favor passage of Amendment 1, with broad support across partisan, education and income levels.

Voters are being asked to make decisions on four constitutional amendments.

  • Amendment 2 sets up a method of succession when the governor is unable to serve. The first paragraph says when the Secretary of State, Senate Speaker and House Speaker declare the governor is unable to discharge the powers of office, those powers and duties shall be discharged by the Senate Speaker as acting governor. If that office is unoccupied, the job would fall to the House Speaker, until the governor transmits a written, signed declaration that the governor is able to discharge the powers and duties of office. The next paragraph says: When a majority of commissioners of administrative departments of the executive branch notify the Secretary of State, Senate Speaker and House Speaker that the governor is unable to discharge the powers and duties of office, the job would be filled by the Senate Speaker. If that post is vacant, the House Speaker would fill the job of governor until the governor is able to fulfill those duties again. A Speaker who is temporarily filling the governor’s role would not be required to resign the Speaker’s position and would retain the same salary but would not act as Speaker or vote as a member of the General Assembly.
  • Amendment 3 deals with removal of “slavery” from the Constitution: It states, “Slavery and involuntary servitude are forever prohibited. Nothing in this section shall prohibit an inmate from working when the inmate has been duly convicted of a crime.” The Constitution currently says slavery and involuntary servitude are “forever prohibited,” except as punishment for a person convicted of a crime. Lee and Martin both support the amendment.
  • Amendment 4 deals with reverends serving in the Legislature: The amendment would delete part of the Constitution that prohibits ministers of the gospel and priests of any denomination from holding a seat in either house of the legislature. The Legislature already has ministers serving in the General Assembly.

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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 and Best Single Feature from the Tennessee Press Association.