by Justin Owen
On November 8, Tennesseans overwhelmingly voted to enshrine right-to-work in the state constitution. For 75 years, Tennessee law has protected its workers from being forced to join a union and pay dues as a condition of employment. It had been such a longstanding tradition that when I began urging state officials and business leaders to consider making right-to-work a constitutional protection, I was met with tremendous reluctance. Why do this now when this state law has been unchallenged for nearly a century?
But as these discussions began in late 2019, the attacks levied against right-to-work policies took the national stage. Then-candidate Joe Biden called on Congress to override and ban state right-to-work protections, and Nancy Pelosi’s House twice voted to do just that via the so-called PRO Act. It also took moderate Democrats in Virginia to stop an attempt by their own party to repeal their right-to-work law. This stood out to us just across the border in Tennessee because our two states had passed our original right-to-work laws in the exact same year.
If worker freedom was under siege in D.C. and neighboring Virginia, it might not be long before it was under fire in our state, too. Sure enough, while we were moving legislation through the process to place a right-to-work constitutional amendment on the ballot, Democrats in the Tennessee legislature filed a bill to end our right-to-work protections.
While we knew that efforts like these would not gain steam under current leadership (Tennessee’s governor, both speakers, and the majority leaders in both houses were vocally supportive of our efforts) no one would have thought this would happen in Virginia a decade ago. We didn’t want to look back 10 or 20 years from now and regret doing nothing when we had the chance.
Placing right-to-work on the ballot was no easy or quick feat. It took two votes of the state legislature, the second time by a two-thirds majority, to place what became Amendment 1 on the ballot this November. Even after we succeeded in getting the amendment on the ballot, we still had our skeptics. Would voters really embrace this? Could general apathy get overrun by enthusiastic union supporters who would turn out the vote? We’d soon find out.
And find out we did. When the final votes were cast, we had garnered 70% of the vote and had won all 95 counties. Even more surprising than the overall margin of victory was where we won. We expected to do well statewide; right-to-work is popular among conservatives, and Tennessee is a formidably red state. But we also performed well in traditionally Democratic and union strongholds. Nashville, the most progressive city in the state, voted 59% to 41% in favor of Amendment 1. Sixty-four percent of voters in Shelby County, home to Memphis, supported the amendment. President Trump lost both counties in 2016 and 2020.
The most glaring reason for undertaking the multi-year process to make right-to-work a constitutional right in Tennessee didn’t happen until after election results were tallied. While we were celebrating victory in the Volunteer State, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the first Democrat-controlled legislature in nearly four decades announced their intent to repeal their state’s right-to-work law. All it will take is a simple majority vote of the legislature to send it to her desk.
We can now say for certain this will never happen in Tennessee, where right-to-work is now officially a fundamental, constitutional right, and where it cannot be taken away without undergoing the lengthy process of again amending the constitution.
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Justin Owen is president & CEO of the Beacon Center, Tennessee’s premier free market think tank. He also led the executive committee of the successful Yes on 1 campaign to enshrine right-to-work in the Tennessee Constitution.
Photo “Tennessee Capitol” by Adam Jones. CC BY-SA 2.0.