Will Tennessee Voters Choose Right to Work?

A guest contribution from CLN member Frank Maurizio

Voters in Tennessee have a crucial decision coming up this fall as we are being asked whether or not the state’s long-tenured “right to work” law should be enshrined in the Tennessee constitution. The timing of this vote – in fact, its necessity at all – is odd; this deep-red state is hardly headed toward becoming a bastion of organized labor.

But Tennessee lawmakers – overwhelmingly Republican – are nervous. Tennessee, which in 2020 was the third least unionized state in the U.S., led the nation in union gains in 2021. Meanwhile, neighboring Georgia ranked seventh in an increase in union jobs.

Clearly, something is happening in the South as union activism – still far from where the Catholic Labor Network and other pro-worker groups would like to see it – is gaining strength. In my neck of the woods (I moved to Chattanooga from labor-friendly New York two years ago), we are excited by Ford’s recent announcement that it is bringing new electric vehicle and battery plants to Tennessee, and the automaker is reportedly open to a unionized workforce.

This has given the right-to-work champions more impetus to get the constitutional amendment approved by voters in November. It has also resulted in a GOP-led effort to ban organizing through card check at companies that receive state incentives to move here.

The fate of that effort remains uncertain but the legislative majority and its allies in the business community are putting their full weight behind the right-to-work constitutional amendment. That means, of course, that those of us who support the right to organize have a responsibility – and an opportunity – to remind voters that right-to-work laws are nothing more than a continued effort to take advantage of workers and thwart their chance to earn a fair wage.

And we might just have an opening: A Gallup Poll last year showed union support at its highest level in more than 50 years at 68 percent of those polled (Labor Unions | Gallup Historical Trends). Another study found that 60 million Americans would join a union if they could. Promising trends, indeed.

As AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Fred Redmond said at a recent convention in Nashville: “Workers are fed up and America is taking notice of our collective action. … Working people are waking up and understanding the value of labor unions.”

As the vote on the constitutional amendment gets closer in Tennessee, let’s hope that Brother Redmond is right.