3/24/2021 Governor Bill Lee Attend the TN Prayer Service at the Grand Ole Opry House

Gov. Bill Lee at the Tennessee Prayer Service in March 2021

With early voting now open and Election Day fast approaching, Gov. Bill Lee is pushing to enshrine right-to-work in the state constitution, issuing an open letter on Tuesday steeped in factual inaccuracies. 

“If amendment 1 passes, we will protect our right to work for generations,” writes Lee in the letter. “If it doesn’t, hard-working Tennesseans will be FORCED to fall in line, pay union dues, and join organizations that give payouts to political cronies.”

As noted by Associated Press reporter Kimberlee Kruesi, this is false. Even in states that are not right-to-work, employees are never required to join a union. In some workplaces, employees may be charged agency fees, which are fees charged to non-union members in work environments where union bargaining and representation benefits all employees. But these fees are lower than union dues, which are never required. 

Right-to-work states outlaw these agency fees, allowing members of the workforce to reap the benefits of union bargaining power without paying dues or agency fees to support the union. This diminishes the resources and bargaining power of unions, effectively weakening organized labor in right-to-work states. 

On top of this inaccuracy, Tennessee will remain a right-to-work state whether or not the amendment passes. (Read more on all four of the constitutional amendments on the Nov. 8 ballot here.) The amendment’s passing would simply make it more difficult for future state governments to end Tennessee’s status as a right-to-work state. Tennessee instituted its right-to-work law decades ago. 

“This is an attempt by greedy corporations to rig our constitution the way that they have rigged our economy, and they're trying to prevent future lawmakers from passing laws that would improve people's lives,” says Jason Freeman, political director for SEIU Local 205, a union representing public- and private-sector employees across Tennessee. 

Last year, the Scene issued a two-part cover story on the history of labor unions in Tennessee, noting that more unions lead to more income equality for members and non-members alike. A study from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that union members lost fewer jobs than non-union members in 2020. 

“Research PROVES that right-to-work states have higher wage growth, employment growth, and population growth,” reads Lee’s letter.

But Freeman says this statement is misleading, because while wages may be growing, at the end of the day they are still lower in Tennessee than in other states that are not right-to-work. 

“Just as an example, families in Minnesota make on average $24,000 a year more than families in Tennessee,” says Freeman. “And that is in a state that is not that different-looking than Tennessee, outside of the fact that they have 10 percent more union jobs.”

Wages are lower in right-to-work states, and evidence is mounting that right-to-work laws are more beneficial to business owners than to workers themselves. Lee and fellow wealthy business owner former Gov. Bill Haslam issued a pro-right-to-work video in August. Many labor advocates have taken to referring to the law as a “right to work for less.”

“What right-to-work does is give you the freedom to make less money than people in other states and the freedom to be more likely to die on the job and the freedom to have a choice of schools that are underfunded,” says Freeman. “What we want people to have is the freedom to exercise their voice in the workplace, to join together with their co-workers to fight for better wages, better benefits and safer working conditions.”

Like what you read?

Click here to make a contribution to the Scene and support local journalism!