NASHVILLE — Local representatives of the Catholic Labor Network, a national nonprofit membership organization, are encouraging Tennesseans to educate themselves about an upcoming vote to add a Right to Work clause to the Tennessee State Constitution.
Tennessee has had Right to Work laws on the books since 1947. But state legislators are working to make that status more permanent with the proposal of Amendment 1, adding a Right to Work clause to the state constitution.
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.”
Voting yes or no on the amendment on Tuesday, Nov. 8, will not change the Right to Work laws already in place, and there is little chance those laws will be changed or repealed, said Aimee Shelide Mayer, Nashville representative of the Catholic Labor Network.
But if the amendment is adopted, any attempts in the future to change or repeal Tennessee’s Right to Work laws would have a harder road to success. “If you put anything in the Constitution, it’s going to be difficult to amend it again,” Mayer said.
Right to Work laws were first proposed in response to the National Labor Relations Act signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935, which legalized the right of workers to form unions, negotiate contracts and conduct job actions. With this protection, unions fought for and won higher wages, better benefits and more safety measures on the job.
Right to Work laws have been seen, by both supporters and opponents of the labor movement, as a way to discourage unions. In the past several decades, the number of Americans who are members of a union have steadily decreased while Right to Work laws have become more and more popular.
In 1947, Tennessee became the first state to enact a Right to Work law. Since its passage, the law has seen strong support among Tennessee legislators and state officials, and there is no significant effort to make any changes to the law, even though the state constitution does not yet mention the topic, Mayer said.
“Tennessee being a Right to Work state makes it one of the cheapest places to do business in the country,” Mayer explained, “which means lower wages for Tennessee workers. But when workers are protected by a union, (businesses) have to guarantee certain wage and safety standards, certain safety training, etc. There is not that same accountability (with Right to Work laws). It’s all relying on the employer to voluntarily put those structures in place.”
“By further enshrining (Right to Work) in the constitution, it will make it more difficult for workers to be protected, especially in the areas of safety, wages and benefits,” Mayer said.
In the past several decades, the number of businesses that include organized unions for its employees has only diminished as Right to Work laws, including those put in place in Tennessee in 1947, have become more and more popular.
For businesses that have unions to represent employees in a Right to Work state, the employees are not required to pay dues to the representing union to receive the benefits the union wins through bargaining, Mayer said.
“The title ‘Right to Work’ is really confusing. No one is taking away your right to work,” Mayer said. “In a Right to Work state, you can still have a union, but you don’t have to pay dues and the union has to protect you no matter what.”
Allowing workers to organize unions and to engage in collective bargaining falls under the Catholic social teaching principle of solidarity, Mayer said.
“It is what binds us together as one human body or, as we Catholics would say, the Body of Christ. If part of the body is hurting then it’s going to affect the overall body,” Mayer, a parishioner of St. Henry Church, said of the principle of solidarity. “We can’t say, ‘Your issues don’t concern me.’ We’re called to love our brother and sister and care for their needs.
“Right to Work hinders that call to solidarity. It allows us to wash our hands of whatever is hurting our brothers and sisters and saying, ‘That’s not my problem,'” she continued.
“Business owners will likely see this as a win” if the amendment passes, Mayer said. “However, all of the papal encyclicals on labor dating back to 1891 underscore the necessity of unions and the right for association. This law is in direct opposition to that. We don’t need it in our Constitution, that’s for sure.”
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Peterson is on the staff of the Tennessee Register, newspaper of the Diocese of Nashville.