(The Center Square) – A resolution that would enshrine right-to-work protections in the Tennessee Constitution has passed the state House after already clearing the Senate.
“Since 1947, Tennessee has valued the right to work because we understand that it is truly a right,” Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, said on the House floor Wednesday evening before the resolution passed, 67-23.
Right-to-work has been protected under state law since the 1940s, but Senate Joint Resolution 648 would elevate the protection through a constitutional amendment. The protection prohibits a person from being hired or fired based on his or her decision to join a union, whether it be in the private or the public sector.
The proposed amendment reads: “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.”
Smith said right-to-work states have higher income, higher value from businesses and higher population growth, and the amendment would prevent future Legislatures or an activist judge from trying to remove the protection. She said Tennessee’s neighbor, Virginia, has had efforts to repeal its right-to-work protections despite establishing them the same year as Tennessee and there have been efforts at the federal level to remove these protections nationally.
The resolution generally has support from Republicans and business groups who argue it gives workers more choice and encourages businesses to operate in the state.
“Ultimately, this is about protecting worker freedom,” Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, said. "If a person wishes to join a union and pay dues for that union’s representation, he or she has every right to still do so, but if a worker wishes to remain independent, this protects that right to do the same.”
Most Democrats and unions oppose the resolution, arguing it weakens union power and diminishes worker protections.
“I think binding us to a policy that keeps wages low is not a good idea,” House Minority Leader Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, said. “It’s not in the interest of most people in Tennessee, particularly at this time when our country is already suffering from a significant trend whereby income is attenuating and the wealthy are getting wealthier and working people are getting less and less of a share of our economy.”
The resolution already had passed the Senate, but Tennessee has a long constitutional amendment process.
Now that the resolution has passed both chambers, it must be reintroduced in the 2021 legislative session and be approved by a two-thirds vote in both chambers. If it passes that threshold, it then will be placed on the general ballot in 2022 and will need to be approved by the majority of voters.