On Thursday the House passed the “Right to Work,” ensuring an individual’s right to work regardless of union affiliation. This protection would be enshrined in the Tennessee Constitution. Under the resolution, no person, corporation, association, or the state or any political subdivisions can deny anyone based on labor union or employee organization membership.
The resolution asserts that individuals have a fundamental civil right to either join or refuse to join a labor union or employee organization. State Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) sponsored this resolution. The resolution achieved its first approval under SJR0648, passed last June and also sponsored by Kelsey.
The state adopted the Tennessee Right to Work law into the Tennessee Code back in 1947. This resolution simply seeks to further protect the provision as a constitutional right.
In a Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus press release shared with The Tennessee Star, House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville), said that this amendment would protect Tennesseans’ right to choose.
“Solidifying this essential concept through this amendment will engrain this key principle of Tennessee business into our constitution,” said Sexton. “This will strengthen our economic standing, support our current and future workforces, and also ensure this state remains open for business.”
This time around, the votes split largely along party lines in both the House and Senate. In the House, all Democrats voted against the bill and only one Republican voted against it: State Representative Scotty Campbell (R-Mountain City).
In the Senate, it achieved no Democratic approval and the only Republican to vote against the bill was State Senator Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga).
The final House floor discussion of the bill presented a clear view of party divide on the matter of making individual choice over union membership a constitutional right. Union membership has been in steady decline for decades – so much so that President Joe Biden issued an executive order to address the issue.
Self-described “labor Democrat,” State Representative Darren Jernigan (D-Old Hickory), said that unions protect individuals against the greed and abuse of corporations. For that reason, he said he couldn’t support the resolution.
The House sponsor, State Representative Chris Todd (R-Madison County), said that his own father was a union worker. He said that this wouldn’t “take down” unions – it would allow individuals the choice to join them.
The resolution drew some heated remarks.
In reference to Kelsey, State Representative Larry Miller (D-Memphis) accused Kelsey of not liking or respecting the Tennessee Constitution.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that he simply just doesn’t like the Tennessee Constitution. I don’t even think he respects it because he’s always tampering with it,” asserted Miller. “I just hope that this body will send a message to that senator – enough is enough.”
Todd responded with a reiteration that this resolution was putting the choice in constituents’ hands. If approved by the voters, Todd said this would better protect a law that’s been in place for decades.
In further response, State Representative John Ragan (R-Oak Ridge) cited the Tennessee Constitution. He read a provision that the power of the constitution belongs to the people.
State Representative Mike Sparks (R-Smyrna) warned that this could be a slippery slope for tinkering with the Tennessee Constitution. However, he said he was reassured that the people have the ability to vote on this provision for themselves.
In support of the legislation, State Representative Jeremy Faison (R-Cosby) said that people shouldn’t be forced to decide against their own conscience.
Immediate rebuttal came from State Representative G.A. Hardaway (D-Memphis), who cited his father’s lifelong union memberships. He asserted that the punishment for not joining unions were just myths. He added further that there is a civil rights aspect to the existence of unions, and claimed that this resolution would “maim” the constitution.
The constitutional amendment must achieve a majority vote during the 2022 November election, in which Tennessee will also choose its next governor.
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