Knoxville Compass: Tennessee Workers Oppose “Right to Work” Amendment


Published by Knoxville Compass

Jesse Fox Mayshark | Oct. 5, 2022

On November’s ballot, voters will have the chance to add Tennessee’s ‘right to work’ law to the state constitution. Union members and organizers strongly oppose it.

When Ava Marlow and her coworkers at the Starbucks store on Cusick Road in Alcoa organized a union drive earlier this year, they were motivated by basic workplace concerns.

“We felt that we didn’t have a say in our working conditions,” Marlow told a room full of East Tennessee labor representatives during a meeting last month. “We were chronically understaffed, and we felt that we were underpaid. And corporate refused to cooperate with us.”

The drive worked. On July 11, 15 of the store’s employees voted to unionize, while seven voted no. The Alcoa store became the fourth union Starbucks location in Tennessee, following two in Knoxville and one in Memphis.

It was part of a nationwide wave of organizing efforts coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the National Labor Relations Board, petitions for union votes at workplaces were up 58 percent during the first three-quarters of the 2022 fiscal year from the same period in 2021.

But Marlow and her labor compatriots have already discovered a built-in challenge to expanding the union’s footprint within the store: Tennessee’s “right-to-work” law, enacted in 1947. It says that no employee can be forced to join a union as a condition of employment.

Effectively, that means that even in a unionized workplace like Marlow’s, workers can benefit from union protections and contracts without paying dues.

“The right-to-work law makes it extremely hard for my union to take a hold in my store,” Marlow said.

Now, a proposal on the Nov. 8 ballot would encode the right-to-work law in the state constitution.

Amendment #1 says, “It is unlawful for any person, corporation, association, or this state or its political subdivisions to deny or attempt to deny employment to any person by reason of the person’s membership in, affiliation with, resignation from, or refusal to join or affiliate with any labor union or employee organization.”

Adding the language to the constitution would not change anything about current law. But it would make it much more difficult for future Tennessee legislators and voters to alter it, which would require another constitutional amendment.

The amendment has been supported by business groups across the state and opposed by labor groups. It is the latest chapter in a long struggle over labor organizing in Tennessee, which has generally gone against labor.

An Anti-Union Surge
The roots of right-to-work laws are in a surge of anti-union efforts immediately following the end of World War II. Unions had enjoyed strong growth during the Depression thanks to legislation supported by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The 1935 National Labor Relations Act, which requires businesses to negotiate in good faith with any union supported by a majority of their workers, remains the foundation of American labor law.

Unions had agreed not to strike during the war. But once it ended, soaring inflation and pent-up demand for higher wages and better working conditions led to a series of strikes in 1945-46. Nearly a quarter-million members of United Auto Workers went on strike in November 1945, followed by 750,000 steelworkers in January 1946 and 340,000 coal miners in April 1946.

Those actions and their capacity to disrupt the economy led to a strong pushback from Republican lawmakers, who took control of both chambers of Congress in the 1946 elections for the first time in 15 years. The most immediate effect was the passage in 1947 of the Taft-Hartley Act, which put federal limits on unions’ power to strike as well as some barriers to organizing. It also allowed states to further limit labor’s reach through right-to-work laws. (President Harry Truman vetoed the bill, but Congress overrode the veto.)

The concept of right-to-work legislation originated among business leaders in the early 1940s and its most fervent evangelist was Vance Muse, an oil industry lobbyist from Texas who founded something called the Christian American Association with corporate backing. Muse was a white supremacist and anti-Semite, and Christian American publications often fused his racism and his anti-union views.

Among many notorious statements still quoted today by labor activists seeking to discredit him, Muse warned that unions were a threat to racial segregation: “From now on, white women and white men will be forced into organizations with black African apes whom they will have to call ‘brother’ or lose their jobs.”

Because or in spite of these racist appeals, Tennessee became one of 10 states that passed right-to-work laws by the end of 1947. Other states followed in the succeeding decades, and there are now 27 with some version of them.

Union membership has declined considerably since its peak of about 35 percent of the U.S. workforce in 1954. In 2021, only 10.3 percent of American workers belonged to unions, and only 6.1 percent of private sector workers.

In Tennessee, where public employees like police and firefighters are legally barred from forming unions, only 5.9 percent of workers are represented by unions and 5.2 percent are actually union members.

Why Now?
So with a right-to-work law on the books and undisturbed for 75 years, and only a small organized labor presence in the state, why has there been a push for a constitutional amendment?

It was proposed by state Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, who has argued that it protects Tennessee workers and employers from possible actions by a future pro-labor state Legislature. The effort began well before this year’s spike in organizing efforts, but those no doubt give added urgency to its supporters.

As required for an amendment to be put to voters, it passed in two successive sessions of the state Legislature, in 2020 and 2021. The second vote had to be by a two-thirds majority. The approval was nearly party-line, with Democrats opposing it and all but two Republicans supporting it.

To be approved and added to the state constitution, it must pass with a majority of the number of votes cast in this year’s gubernatorial contest.

Heading up the public campaign for the amendment is a group called the Yes On 1 Committee, with former Gov. Bill Haslam serving as treasurer.

The group has so far reported raising $85,750 to advocate for the measure, with most of the donations coming from business groups and executives — among them, Bush Brothers Chairman Andrew Everett and Knoxville Subway sandwich franchise owner John Boike.

The Tennessee Business Roundtable contributed $5,000 for the effort, and the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce chipped in $2,500.

Haslam appeared with Gov. Bill Lee in a video encouraging people to vote for the amendment.

“As governors and as business owners, Bill and I both know that our right-to-work law has been a key ingredient in the effort to bring high-wage jobs to Tennessee,” Haslam says in the video.

“What we’re doing right now in Tennessee is working” Lee adds. “Right-to-work is common sense. And with federal efforts to repeal it nationwide, it’s time for Tennesseans to speak up.”

It’s true that there have been proposals to eliminate right-to-work laws, including one introduced this month by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. Republican lawmakers, including Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., have also introduced bills that would create a national right-to-work law. (In the current divided Congress, neither appears likely to pass any time soon.)

The Yes On 1 Committee has also set up a website that argues that “right-to-work states like Tennessee have higher real income growth, employment growth, and population growth.”

As far as it goes, that statement appears broadly true, with caveats. Tennessee, for example, had a higher population growth rate over the past decade than non-right-to-work states like California, New York and all of New England — but a lower rate than non-right-to-work states Colorado, Washington and Oregon.

And while Tennessee’s rate of personal income growth over the past 60 years ranks seventh — and eight of the top 10 are right-to-work states — it’s also true that as of 2019 it still ranked 42nd in actual median household income.

Labor Voices
In fact, nine of the top 10 states in median household income do not have right-to-work laws, which is one of the most common arguments against them.

The labor-friendly nonprofit Economic Policy Institute argues that right-to-work laws are intended to suppress wages, and have succeeded. According to a 2015 EPI report, after controlling for variables, right-to-work states had a 3.1 percent lower average wage than non-right-to-work states — a difference of about $1,558 less per year for the average full-time worker.

Tennessee labor organizations tried to stop the proposed amendment from receiving the necessary two-thirds vote in the Legislature this year, but found themselves overpowered.

“It was about big corporations, it was about big business,” Wes Trotterchaud, president and business manager of Teamsters Local 519 in Knoxville, said at the meeting last month where Marlow spoke. “It was about keeping your wages low. It was about keeping your benefits low.”

Trotterchaud hosted the assembly at the Teamsters building in North Knoxville. It brought together a room full of state and local labor leaders and union members — people Trotterchaud proudly claimed as “the working class.”

He said people in right-to-work states who work at unionized companies but refuse to join the union are in effect free riders — they benefit from the union’s leverage without contributing to it.

“Pay your fair share!” Trotterchaud exclaimed. “All right-to-work is is welfare for workers leeching off the union.”

State Reps. Gloria Johnson and Sam McKenzie, Knoxville’s two Democratic legislators, both showed up to voice their opposition to the amendment. To show some semblance of bipartisan solidarity, there was also a pre-recorded message from state Rep. Scotty Campbell, R-Mountain City, one of the two Republicans who voted against the bill. (He said that with a right-to-work law already in place, he didn’t see the need for the state to spend money holding a referendum.)

Joseph Page is leading the effort against Amendment #1 for SEIU Local 205, which represents primarily public sector workers across the state. SEIU has provided most of the funding — $25,000 so far — for a “Vote No on 1” campaign.

Regardless of what happens in November’s vote, Page told the crowd at the Teamsters hall that he is seeing a leap in union awareness and activism among younger people.

“I’m 27 years old,” Page said. “And I want to say among, especially, young people in this country, folks are waking up and realizing that the system that we’ve got right now is not working for everyday working-class people.”