On April 29, the Tennessee General Assembly voted to refer a constitutional amendment to the 2022 ballot that would make it illegal for workplaces to require mandatory labor union membership as a condition for employment. This type of policy is known as right-to-work. Tennessee enacted a right-to-work statute in 1947.
Sen. Brian Kelsey (R), the sponsor of the amendment, said, “The Tennessee right-to-work law states that workers cannot be hired or fired, or in any way discriminated against based on whether or not they are a member of a union. I think that this right is an important enough civil right that it belongs in our state constitution.”
Sen. Sara Kyle (D), who voted against the measure, said, “Right-to-work is a false slogan. The true effect of this legislation is to destroy the freedom and power of collective bargaining. Collective bargaining has lifted millions of workers out of poverty and provided families with health care and dignity in retirement. That gives big corporations the upper hand.”
The Tennessee State Legislature can refer constitutional amendments to the ballot for gubernatorial general elections. The Tennessee Constitution requires the legislature to approve a constitutional amendment during two successive legislative sessions with an election in between. There are two different vote requirements for the first session and the second. During the first session, the legislature must approve a constitutional amendment by a simple majority (50%+1) vote in each legislative chamber. During the second legislative session, the legislature must approve a constitutional amendment by a two-thirds (66.67%) vote in each chamber. In the state Senate, that amounts to 17 votes during the first session and 22 votes during the second session, assuming no vacancies. In the state House, that amounts to 50 votes during the first session and 66 votes during the second session.
The amendment was first introduced as Senate Joint Resolution 648 (SJR 648) during the 2020 legislative session. On February 10, 2020, the state Senate passed SJR 648 in a vote of 24-5. Of the 25 Republicans in the Senate, 24 voted in favor of SJR 648, and one voted against it. All four Democrats voted against it. On June 17, 2020, the state House passed SJR 648 in a vote of 68-22. The vote was along party lines with Republicans in the majority and Democrats in the minority.
During the 2021 legislative session, the amendment was introduced as Senate Joint Resolution 2 (SJR 2). The state Senate passed the amendment on March 8, 2021, by a vote of 24-7. The vote was along party lines with one Republican joining the minority. On April 29, the state House passed the amendment in a vote of 67-24 with one present and not voting. One Republican joined the Democratic minority.
Twenty-seven states have enacted right-to-work statutes. In 2018, Missouri voters decided Proposition A, a referendum to repeal the state’s recently enacted right-to-work statute. The vote margin was 67.47% in favor of repealing the law and 32.53% in favor of upholding the law. Nine states have adopted right-to-work constitutional amendments. Virginia was the last state to vote on a right-to-work constitutional amendment in 2016. It was defeated with 53.62% opposing the measure.
The Tennessee amendment will be the first amendment certified for the ballot in the state since 2014. Tennessee voters approved 100% of the 11 statewide ballot measures appearing on ballots between 1995 and 2014.