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Amendment 1 would put Tennessee's 'right-to-work' law in the constitution. Here's what that means.

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Tony Gonzalez
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WPLN
In Tennessee, workers can't be denied employment based on whether or not they join a union. Supporters of Amendment 1 say it should stay that way. But opponents say the amendment would further weaken labor organizing in the state.

When voters cast their ballots this election, they’ll have the chance to weigh in on four potential amendments to Tennessee’s constitution. The first would enshrine the state’s “right-to-work” law which deals with employment rules.

Here’s a breakdown of what that term means, and who’s for and against the amendment.

Defining ‘right-to-work’

In Tennessee, workers can’t be forced to join a union or pay union dues as a condition of their employment. They also can’t be denied work for opting into a union, according to the state law.

Here’s the language of the current policy:

“It is unlawful for any person, firm, corporation or association of any kind 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 of any kind.”

This law has been on the books for 75 years, and that’s what people refer to when they say “right-to-work” law.

Amendment 1 proponents say workers should be allowed to choose

Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton says it’s an important option for workers.

“If you don’t have the right to work, you know, the school systems could require every teacher to join the union in order to work in that school system,” Sexton says. “And so all we’re saying is it should be up to the individual person to make that decision if they want to join it or not.”

Even if Amendment 1 fails, Tennessee’s current “right-to-work” law would remain in place.

While Sexton says the law’s not going anywhere under Republican control, he says Amendment 1 would make it harder for lawmakers to repeal the policy in the future, should control of the legislature change.

Opponents say it would hurt labor organizing

Those opposed to Amendment 1 say it would further erode union power. Eric Coons, president of Nashville Building Trades, says, “It could hurt the labor movement overall in the state of Tennessee.”

Coons says these types of laws disincentivize people from joining unions.

“If I tell you you don’t have to do something, are you going to do it? Nine times out of ten, you’re not.”

And Coons says union dues benefit more than just their members. For example, they also provide training for the next generation of workers.

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Alexis Marshall
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WPLN
Students from the training program Music City Construction Careers await their graduation certificates. The union-funded program helps train future building trades professionals.

Calvin Wade hopes to be among them. He recently graduated from a union-funded program and plans to do a 5-year apprenticeship to become an electrician. He says it’s helping him avoid student debt.

“I’m just very grateful to be able to learn what interests me a lot without paying so much money out of pocket for it,” Wade says.

Wade plans on voting no on Amendment 1. But a recent 500-person poll conducted by Cygnal for the Vote Yes On 1 campaign shows a majority of likely voters support the measure.

If the amendment passes, it would take years to repeal the policy — and another statewide referendum.

Alexis Marshall is the 2018 fall reporting intern at Nashville Public Radio. She is a senior at Middle Tennessee State University.
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