Unions play a key role in improving life for Tennessee workers

Asking to be paid fairly and treated with respect on the job aren’t partisan issues

September 4, 2023 6:01 am
UAW members rally for a new contract at the labor organization’s Region 1 headquarters on Aug. 20, 2023. | UAW photo.

UAW members rally for a new contract at the labor organization’s Region 1 headquarters on Aug. 20, 2023. | UAW photo.

For many folks, Labor Day is often thought of as the “unofficial” end to summer. 

But for those of us in the labor movement, it’s a turning point in our “summer of strikes” as we head into the fall. 

Whether it’s Writers Guild of America (WGA) or SAG-AFTRA members walking the picket lines in Hollywood and New York City or Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers (BCTGM) Local 390G members in Memphis who have been on strike against International Flavors and Fragrances since early June, working people across the country are coming together like never before.

In fact, a new poll released in mid-August showed that 67% of likely voters support the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, including 68% of Independent voters. 

On Aug. 25, another poll showed that seven in 10 Americans support unions cutting across party lines, including a majority of Republicans, more than two-thirds of Independents, and nine in 10 Democrats. 

The numbers don’t lie: asking to be paid fairly and treated with dignity and respect on the job are not partisan issues or only applicable to certain industries.

They affect all workers, including right here in Tennessee. 

The Poplar Avenue Starbucks store in Memphis at which seven employees were fired in Feb. 2022 for union organizing efforts. (Photo by Karen Pulfer Focht ©)
The Poplar Avenue Starbucks store in Memphis at which seven employees were fired in Feb. 2022 for union organizing efforts. An August ruling restored the “Memphis Seven”‘s jobs. (Photo by Karen Pulfer Focht ©)

But we’re often fighting an uphill battle for workers’ rights in our state. 

Between a supermajority that’s drunk with power and alarmingly casual about its authoritarian and dictatorial actions — for proof, just look at the unjust April expulsions of Democratic Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson and the recently-adjourned circus of a special session on public safety — or the corporate greed that floods the halls of the General Assembly, it’s clear who calls the shots in Tennessee. 

In this year’s regular legislative session, lawmakers were quick to show their disdain for workers by passing a bill that will ultimately tie the hands of private businesses that may want to locate in Tennessee in the future by making them ineligible to receive state monies if any votes on worker representation are not held by a secret ballot election.

Legislative leaders who tout their support for letting businesses do what they want literally inserted themselves into matters that should be left up to private businesses and their employees.

This could result in companies that are looking to expand or relocate choosing to do so elsewhere, meaning that Tennessee would lose out on good jobs and major investments. 

Another proposal linked a pay raise for our state’s dedicated, hard-working teachers to the elimination of automatic payroll dues deduction for Tennessee Education Association (TEA) members. 

While this was briefly held up in court, the law is now in effect. 

It’s clear that corporate special interest groups and big business are maintaining their tight grip on legislators.  

But here’s the good news: it doesn’t have to be this way. 

We can level the playing field and ensure that all Tennesseans have a seat at the table, with unions playing a key role in making that a reality.

While usually associated with things like the 8-hour workday and weekends, labor unions are more important than ever in today’s world. 

In fact, unions are the single best tool we have to stand up to the corporate greed we are up against, both locally and nationally. 

As we celebrate Labor Day, I pledge to continue doing my part as the president of the Tennessee AFL-CIO to advocate for all working people in our state. 

But this isn’t about me.

The labor movement is bigger than just one person or one group. 

Our organization would be nothing without our members, allies, partners, and friends who make up the Tennessee labor movement. 

Thank you for everything that you do for working families across our state.

When we join together in solidarity to advocate for better wages, safe workplaces, and a voice on the job, there’s nothing that we can’t accomplish. 

Life really is better in a union. 

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Billy Dycus
Billy Dycus

Billy Dycus is the president of the Tennessee AFL-CIO Labor Council, which represents more than 60,000 workers statewide.