Tikelia Rucker holds a sign stating "Vote NO on 1" (the right-to-work amendment). Several other demonstrators holding the same sign are seen in the background.
Tikeila Rucker, an organizer for Memphis for All, stands outside the National Civil Rights Museum during a press conference advocating against the proposed Amendment 1 that would consecrate the so-called “right-to-work.” Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

With just one day before the midterm election, Memphis political leaders and organizers are making a final push to urge residents to vote “no” on Tennessee Constitutional Amendment 1, or the so-called “right-to-work” amendment.

Currently, Tennessee is a “right-to-work” state and has been since the 1940s. The law protects workers from being denied employment if they choose not to join a union, despite a 75-year-old federal law that already ensures workers have a right to refrain from union membership

Instead, under Tennessee’s “right-to-work” law, unions are required to represent all employees in a unionized workplace without requiring workers to pay membership dues in return. Essentially, it forces unions to provide workers with the benefits of membership without paying any of the cost, ultimately weakening the power of unions, according to labor organizers.

Working people don’t understand what unions are really about. Right-to-work is not a right to work. It’s a right to get fired.

Kevin Bradshaw, president of Memphis and West Tennessee AFL-CIO Labor Council

If Amendment 1 fails and “right-to-work” is not constitutionalized, it will still remain Tennessee law. 

In “right-to-work” states, workers earn about $11,000 less per year, the poverty rate is higher at 11%, workers are 12% more likely to be uninsured and workers have a 57% higher risk of dying on the job than people in non-“right-to-work” states, according to AFL-CIO’s Common Sense Economics training program

At a Nov. 1 press conference, Memphis Democratic Congressman Steve Cohen, Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris and Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy urged residents to vote against the “right-to-work” amendment Tuesday.

“When you take away the ability to effectively and decisively collective bargain, this is what you get … low wages, impoverished workers. That state of affairs will continue if Amendment 1 passes. The difference is it will remove any legitimate hope of that ever changing … if [right-to-work] becomes constitutionalized,” Mulroy told MLK50 in an interview.

Mulroy, who is a former constitutional law professor at the University of Memphis, said constitutional amendments should be saved for basic governmental structure and basic individual rights, describing the “right-to-work” amendment as a “profoundly bad idea.”

“We don’t put in social and economic policy because we’ve got to have the flexibility to change it as conditions change, as people, ideas, the economy and society evolves,” Mulroy said. “This takes away that flexibility and puts it in stone.”

When voters encounter the ballot on Election Day, the vote for Amendment 1 is immediately after the vote for governor, followed by three additional amendment votes and several votes for state, federal and local officials. The ballot asks voters to select ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on whether it is illegal to deny a person a job if that person chooses to or refuses to join a union. 

A screengrab showing the wording of the "right-to-work" amendment on the Tennessee ballot.
A screenshot of the November 8 ballot’s section on Amendment 1. Image via the Shelby County Election Commission.

The language “right-to-work” does not appear anywhere on the ballot, and some employment lawyers say the amendment is framed in a way that intentionally ignores the context of what “right-to-work” really means, for both workers and employers. Bryce Ashby, an employment lawyer at Donati Law who focuses on wage and hour issues, said the amendment reads in a way that seems basic and logical at first glance.

“I think it’s purposely framed in a way where you don’t have that understanding of what [Amendment 1] is actually adding to your rights, compared to what’s already provided for you under federal law,” Ashby said.

Not only is Tennessee already a “right-to-work” state aiming to enshrine it into the constitution, it is also an “at-will” state, meaning workers can be fired for any reason or no reason at all.

For workers in Memphis, hourly wages are about $4 less than workers across the nation, and in Tennessee, employers spend less on wages, salaries and benefits for their workers compared to employers across the U.S. 

A large group of people stand under a gazebo holding signs for Gov. Bill Lee.
Gov. Bill Lee (right) spoke in Collierville on Saturday evening and was met with people protesting against the proposed Amendment One (left.) Photo by Ariel Cobbert for MLK50

“Right-to-work” supporters, such as Gov. Bill Lee and former Gov. Bill Haslam, say it helps build a strong economy and attracts jobs to Tennessee, but Ashby said the combination of “right-to-work” and “at-will” ultimately leaves workers at the mercy of their employers.

“When you bring all of this together, [it means] that workers have little say in what their future employment is likely to be. They’re really at the will of what their employer wants to do, what the corporation wants to do,” Ashby said. “It creates a culture of ‘I just got to keep my head down.’”

The “right-to-work” movement is rooted in the Jim Crow era. In the 1930s and 1940s, Southern segregationists and white supremacist businessmen realized unions promoted worker solidarity across racial lines and, in response, lobbied for “right-to-work” legislation across the South. Tennessee was one of the first to adopt it as state law in 1947

Today, Memphis is one of the poorest large metropolitan areas in the nation, with a bulk of the area’s workers in transportation and material moving industries – such as FedEx, which employs 30,000 workers alone. With over two generations of Memphians growing up and working in Tennessee as a “right-to-work” state, a “plantation mentality” has been ingrained in both workers and employers, where “employers know best and workers should just be happy to have jobs,” Ashby said.

“I think [right-to-work] is a perpetuation of the racial divide,” he said. “I think it’s an attempt to pit low-wage workers against each other based on racial divides.”

“Right-to-work” has become a highly politicized issue in the state. Of the several Shelby County legislators in the Tennessee General Assembly, all Republicans supported Amendment 1, while all Democrats opposed it, except Rep. Antonio Parkinson who abstained from voting.

Kevin Bradshaw, president of the Memphis and West Tennessee AFL-CIO Labor Council, stands outside the National Civil Rights Museum after a press conference. A woman wearing a purple suit coat is seen in the background.
Kevin Bradshaw, president of the Memphis and West Tennessee AFL-CIO Labor Council, stands outside the National Civil Rights Museum after a press conference last week. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

Kevin Bradshaw, president of Memphis and West Tennessee AFL-CIO Labor Council, said those who support “right-to-work” don’t care about working people, and if Amendment 1 passes into the Tennessee Constitution, it will continue to affect current workers, their children and their children’s children when they enter the workforce.

“Dues are not the union. The people are the union. Those dues that you do pay are for running a business and arbitration for people who are wrongfully terminated at-will,” Bradshaw said. “Working people don’t understand what unions are really about. Right-to-work is not a right to work. It’s a right to get fired.”

Brittany Brown is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email her at brittany.brown@mlk50.com

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