By Clint Confehr

NASHVILLE, TN — Tennesseans are being asked if they want to ‘immortalize’ their state’s ‘right to work’ law by voting yes in a referendum on Nov. 8.

If approved, the law can’t be killed or changed without another referendum and transformation of state politics which could take an eternity.

In that way, the ‘right to work’ law attains the qualified immortality of a zombie or vampire. That’s if the referendum passes and the statute becomes part of Tennessee’s Constitution.

The ballot question asks if the state Constitution should be amended to include the ‘right to work’ law. Its provisions would remain the same. The differences would be: where the law rests; and state lawmakers’ inability to change it. Voter approval would be required.

Other reports say passage would “enshrine” the 75-year-old law in a holy place.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would disagree, according to his 1961 statement against ‘right to work’ laws.

“In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans such as ‘right to work,’” Rev. King said 14 years after Tennessee leaders enacted the statute.

“It’s purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions for everyone,” King said. “Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights…

“Our weapon is our vote,” he said.

Union leaders agree. They negotiate contracts defining terms of employment. Advocates emphasize the law protects workers who don’t join a union or pay dues. They still benefit from the union contract when one’s in place. Market forces improve wages and working conditions where employees work near unionized businesses.

Vonda McDaniel, president of the Central Labor Council for Nashville and Middle Tennessee, says “The referendum is unnecessary,” and the GOP-dominated General Assembly is “trying to double down” on unions because “they see a new energy around unions and organizing.”

Starbucks and Amazon are examples.

Right to work laws nullify issues that arise under so-called ‘closed shop’ rules at the workplace. To work in a ‘closed shop,’ one must be a member of the union that negotiated a work contract. An ‘open shop’ is where the employer may hire someone who’s not a union member. That weakens the seniority system.

The statute was enacted after World War II when unions were powerful. Things have changed in 75 years, particularly with the coronavirus which revealed reasons for unions, McDaniel said. She’s getting more calls since the pandemic.

“First it was to get personal protective equipment,” McDaniel said.

Now, it’s how to organize, she says. Union approval is 67 percent overall and nearly 76 percent among young people who realize unions improve wages and access to health care. It’s a state issue here where lawmakers refuse to expand medicaid while rural hospitals are closing.

“And the construction workplace is safer,” she said. “All of those things go to quality of life and unions improve the quality of life.”

To vote in the referendum, citizens must vote in the governor’s race. To pass, the measure must get more than half the number of votes in that race. Not voting for governor is a vote against amending the Constitution. The candidates for governor are: Republican Gov. Bill Lee; Democrat Dr. Jason Martin; and eight independents.

“I’m optimistic that if people don’t understand it, they’ll skip it,” McDaniel said, adding that amendment advocates’ polling shows 58 percent might vote yes. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percent.

Clint Confehr

Clint Confehr — an American journalist since 1972 — first wrote for The Tennessee Tribune in 1999. His news writing and photography in South Central Tennessee and the Nashville Metropolitan Statistical...