Gov. Bill Lee has repeatedly said Tennessee’s business-friendly environment is what set the state apart from others vying for Ford Motor Company’s first new plant in 50 years, the $5.6 billion project called Blue Oval City set to be constructed on the West Tennessee Regional Megasite.
Part of that, he believes, is Tennessee’s right-to-work law, in place since 1947, which allows workers across the state to elect whether or not they would like to join a union. Without a law in place, unions can require membership as a condition of employment as they do federally.
Currently, Tennessee is one of 27 states with right-to-work laws, but state Republican leaders are looking to take that further in November 2022 by making Right to Work a constitutional amendment via a ballot initiative.
As Rep. Chris Todd, R-Madison County, explained last week, the goal is to show potential businesses coming to the state that right-to-work laws will remain on the books despite federal pressures or the whims of the legislature.
Having the measure as part of the constitution would make it much harder to overturn.
Lee said that workers at Ford’s new electric truck plant in West Tennessee would decide on their own if they would like to unionize.
“To provide freedom for all of our workers, we should have that as part of our constitution,” Lee said at an announcement that he would be statewide chairman of the “Yes on 1” campaign to pass the amendment.
He is joined on the committee by former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and was at the announcement with House Speaker Cameron Sexton, along with Republican legislative leaders Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, Rep. William Lamberth, R-Portland and Todd.
During the legislative discussion of the amendment, Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, said that he didn’t believe it was necessary or proper to make right-to-work a constitutional change. He said he believes unions are essential to give minorities equal opportunities at work.
“There is a civil rights aspect to the existence of unions,” Hardaway said. “… I am just perplexed. I don’t understand it. I don’t understand why we keep trifling with the constitution. Every time we have a statutory issue, we decide we are going to maim the constitution.”
A Beacon Center survey in 2019 reported 68% of Tennesseans favored the right-to-work policy, while 13% opposed and 19% were undecided.
A survey from the National Federation for Independent Business said that nearly 75% of NFIB members believe worker choice and worker freedom are fundamental values that deserve constitutional protection.
“Tennessee’s right-to-work law, which simply says a worker can choose to join a union or not, deserves extra protection for several reasons,” said NFIB Tennessee State Chair Jim Brown. “First, the U.S. House of Representatives has passed the PRO Act twice, which if passed would eradicate 27 state right-to-work laws, including Tennessee’s. This is and always should be a state issue, not federal.
“Second, in neighboring Virginia lawmakers recently considered eliminating their right-to-work law, which has been on the books since 1947 just like Tennessee’s. Thankfully, Governor Northam expressed concern and helped to slow that effort. Additionally, several years ago a judge in Indiana unsuccessfully attempted to overturn that state’s right-to-work law.”
Justin Owen, a committee member and the President and CEO of Beacon Center Tennessee, believes it is crucial to have leaders such as Lee supporting the amendment.
“Gov. Lee has a unique understanding of what it takes for Tennessee to be a jobs magnet, first as a business owner and now as our state’s chief economic development recruiter,” Owen said. “We are honored that he is joining Yes on 1 as our statewide chairman so that he can provide that perspective. If we want our state to remain competitive and strong economically, we must preserve our right-to-work status from the onslaught of attacks by D.C. politicians like Biden, Harris, Pelosi, and Schumer.
“While they want to take away our right-to-work law, we believe that decision should be left in the hands of Tennesseans. And we expect Tennesseans to send that message to D.C. next November when they vote overwhelmingly to protect right-to-work for generations to come by placing it in our state constitution. We will spend 2022 making the case that the best way to tell D.C. that this decision is for Tennesseans to make is to vote ‘yes’ on Amendment 1.”