A resolution to add Tennessee’s Right to Work law to the state constitution was given final approval from the Tennessee Senate on Monday night. After three readings on the floor of the Senate, the measure received over the two thirds supermajority vote required to pass. Senate Joint Resolution 2, sponsored by State Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), fulfills the second required passage of this measure by the legislature. In June 2020, Senate Joint Resolution 648, sponsored by Senator Kelsey, overwhelmingly passed the General Assembly, which was the first step to enshrine the law to the Tennessee Constitution.
The measure will be carried by Rep. Chris Todd (R-Jackson) in the House and must now receive approval from the House of Representatives before it is sent to voters on the ballot. The amendment would become part of the state constitution if adopted by a majority vote in the 2022 governor’s election.
“This amendment will guarantee future generations of Tennessee workers their right to work regardless of whether they choose to join a union,” said Senator Kelsey. “I am pleased this has passed its final hurdle in the Senate and look forward to its passage in the House.”
Tennessee’s Right to Work statute has been state law since 1947. It provides workers cannot be hired or fired based on their membership in, affiliation with, resignation from, or refusal to join or affiliate with any labor union or employee organization. When introduced in 1947, supporters of the bill argued that it would “be of great advantage to the average member of organized labor.” It also protects the rights of those who choose not to join a union.
“Tennessee workers want to make their own choices in the workplace and this amendment will forever seal that right,” said Senator Paul Bailey (R-Sparta), a co-sponsor of the legislation. “It also sends a strong message that Tennessee will continue to foster a business-friendly climate into the future for locating high quality jobs. There is no better place than our State Constitution to ensure that Tennessee remains a right to work state.”
Twenty-seven other states have Right to Work laws, and nine of those have passed constitutional amendments, including neighboring states Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama. The Alabama amendment passed most recently in 2016. Another neighbor, Virginia, has considered repealing its Right to Work statute. A constitutional amendment in Tennessee would offer greater protection for workers against such repeal efforts.
“Tennessee’s Right to Work laws have been critical to producing the economic growth our state has experienced over the last decade,” said Lt. Governor McNally, a co-sponsor of the measure. “I appreciate everything Senator Kelsey has done to support the right to work in Tennessee.”
“Tennessee has been and will remain a Right to Work state,” said Speaker Cameron Sexton. “Solidifying this essential concept through this amendment will engrain this key principle of Tennessee business into our constitution. This will strengthen our economic standing, support our current and future workforces, and also ensure this state remains open for business.”
The resolution has also gained support from prominent Tennessee business leaders.
“Rhetoric from national candidates against state right to work laws has caught the attention of small businesses across Tennessee,” said Jim Brown, Tennessee state director for NFIB. “In neighboring Virginia there was recently an effort to repeal its right to work law adopted in 1947, and in Indiana a judge ruled in 2013 that its right to work law was unconstitutional. Tennesseans simply prefer choices over mandates. For these reasons, NFIB strongly supports SJR 2, which will strengthen a key element that has made Tennessee an attractive state for businesses and workers.”
“The Tennessee Chamber and our business community has remained strongly supportive of our status as a Right to Work state which is a key component establishing the Volunteer state as friendly to business,” said Bradley Jackson, president and CEO of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “Embedding Right to Work permanently in our constitution sends a strong message moving forward that Tennessee is and always will be ready for business.”
Beacon Impact, the advocacy partner of the Beacon Center of Tennessee also supports the resolution.
“While Right to Work has been the long-standing public policy of Tennessee, it is increasingly under attack,” said Justin Owen, CEO of Beacon Impact. “It is imperative that we protect the fundamental right of Tennessee workers to decide whether or not to pay union dues for generations to come, and the best way to do that is to recognize this right in our state constitution.”
Tennessee AFL-CIO President Billy Dycus said, "We are disappointed but unfortunately not surprised by the Tennessee Senate's final approval of SJR 0002 this afternoon. With today's vote, 24 senators said 'yes' to keeping wages low, making workplaces more dangerous, and setting a dangerous precedent of amending the Tennessee Constitution to cater to a political agenda. The Republican supermajority made its priorities abundantly clear once again: it is pro-business and anti-worker.
"Our fight against this political power-grab is far from over. We now turn our attention to the House, which will begin hearing this harmful push to enshrine Tennessee's Right to Work law in the state constitution on Wednesday. Together with our members, affiliates, and community allies throughout the state, we will continue to make our voices heard loud and clear in opposition to this legislation.
"In its 150-year history, the state constitution has only been amended nine times. This is a sacred process that should not be taken lightly. It appears, however, that the majority of our legislators do not agree. Tennesseans are suffering and need real solutions to real problems, not a never-ending partisan crusade that is a waste of taxpayer dollars. Working families are undoubtedly the ones who will continue to suffer the most if this law is put on a pedestal. We renew our call asking Tennessee lawmakers to reject this blatant show of support for corporate special interests as it continues on its legislative journey."
There is also strong public support for the resolution, said officials. An October 2019 Beacon Center survey reported that 68 percent of Tennesseans favor the Right to Work policy, while 13 percent are opposed, and 19 percent remain undecided.