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After Midterms, Dems Have Opportunity to Curb Right-to-Work Laws. Will They?

The mere presence of Democratic majorities in a state does not always translate into protections for workers and unions.

Amazon and Stabucks workers, supported by new service economy unions, march through the streets to protest union busting on Labor Day, September 5, 2022, in New York City.

In addition to members of the House of Representatives, Senate, governors and state legislators, there were many important ballot measures on the line for voters in 37 states to consider on November 8. Illinois and Tennessee voted on two opposite constitutional amendments on workers’ union rights. In both states, right-wing anti-union forces used scare tactics against the organizing and mobilizing efforts of unions and their community allies. In addition, advocates on both sides of the fight looked to policies in neighboring states to guide their arguments and framing to the public. But the different histories, institutional contexts and relative strength of the labor union movements resulted in very different outcomes. Considering the growth of “right-to-work” states since the Republican wave of the 2010s, these outcomes demonstrate possibilities for the future of organizing in different state contexts in the future.

Tennessee: An Uphill Battle in a Right-to-Work State

Tennessee, like many southern states, has been a “right-to-work” state for many years. Anti-union forces often frame “right-to-work” laws as protections for workers from being forced to join unions as a condition of employment, but in actuality, these laws limit the resource collection of unions that represent workers in a workplace, and thus undermine a union’s ability to engage in collective bargaining, worker representation, and other advocacy work. In non-right-to-work states, workers who choose not to join a union that represents a workplace must pay an “agency fee,” defined as a portion of union dues that cover services provided. As a result, right-to-work states tend to have more low-wage jobs and worse overall labor outcomes.

Tennessee’s original right-to-work legislation was passed through normal statutory means (state legislature and approval by the governor) in 1937. The language of the statute emphasizes the right to non-discrimination of employment based on union membership or dues payment. What this means practically is that unions in a workplace must provide services to nonmembers who do not pay dues, which hurts the power of unions and their ability to staff and serve their members. This right-to-work provision was part of state code, and it could have been overturned anytime by a sympathetic state legislature and governor. In fact, in the past 30 years, Democrats had a Democratic trifecta for five non-consecutive years. During any of those years, Democrats could have changed this state law to allow for protections for unions. However, this did not happen. Almost all states in the southeast are right-to-work states, according to the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.

Major Players in the Constitutional Referendum

While many southern states were right-to-work states, a recent trend emerged during the 2010s, often in times of Republican control, to enshrine right-to-work laws into state constitutions. In 2016, Alabama changed from a statutory right-to-work state to a constitutionally right-to-work state. However, changes like this one had little effect on actual practice.

Billy Dycus, the president of the Tennessee American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), told Truthout that the motivation behind the constitutional referendum, known as Amendment 1, was right-wing fear around the Biden administration and Democratic Party resurgence. Just like in Alabama, placing right-to-work language in the Tennessee Constitution would do little to change the conditions on the ground for workers, but it would make it hard for future legislators to change the law.

The team behind Amendment 1 included an illustrious crew of right-wing and wealthy power players in the state. The amendment was first introduced in 2020 by State Sen. Brian Kelsey, who is associated with the Chicago-based Liberty Justice Center and the legal team behind the Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court decision. (Kelsey is also currently facing indictment for campaign finance conspiracy.) The amendment had to go through two legislative sessions and go to a popular vote during the year of a governor’s race, which was 2022. The major funders and players behind the bill included former Gov. Bill Haslam, famous for this status as the first billionaire governor (owner of the Flying J truck stop empire, brother of Jim Haslam, the owner of the Cleveland Browns); current Gov. Bill Lee; all current Republican state elected officials; Justin Owen from Beacon Center of Tennessee (associated with the Koch-funded State Policy Network); Jim Brown of the National Federation of Independent Business (famous for challenging the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act); and the Chamber of Commerce. But the campaign to vote “yes” did not spend much money, according to filing reports, with a budget of around $250,000 that spent mostly on digital ads.

While the “Yes on 1” coalition was an impressive collection of prominent anti-worker advocates, the “No on 1” coalition was impressive, diverse and grassroots. The Tennessee AFL-CIO, affiliate unions including the Tennessee state council SEIU, Tennessee Teamsters, the Tennessee State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Democratic elected officials, the state and local Democratic Party organizations and committees and an umbrella progressive organization, Tennessee For All (which included other faith, community and labor organizations) made up the “No” coalition. They created social media campaigns centered on testimony from regular Tennesseans, including Republicans, explaining why they would vote against Amendment 1. Creative attempts at gaining earned media included birddogging the governor during this reelection campaign for sending out a deceptive message claiming that failure to put right to work in the constitution would lead to thousands of Tennesseans being forced to join unions.

Defeat and Looking Toward the Future

While pro-labor and progressive Tennessee groups did a diligent job to turn out voters against Amendment 1, in the end, the amendment passed on election night with 69.8 percent of votes in favor, 30.2 percent against. Dycus told Truthout, “We knew what we were up against, because the title, right to work, was deceptive. We knew that because of the lack of education about what right to work really means, we had a 75-year uphill battle.” The language of the amendment text was also quite confusing. Yet despite this setback, Dycus remains positive about the future of unions in Tennessee. Tennessee has enjoyed the highest rate of union member growth of any state in recent years, despite its right-to-work legal challenges. Many industries and manufacturing plants have recently located or will build plants in Tennessee, including Volkswagen, Hankook, BekZon (as Swedish manufacturer), and the new electric Ford plant, the Blue Oval. Dycus says that with this continuous growth, “We have a lot of opportunities for [additional] organizing. If we can use this as an opportunity to educate and grow our membership, then we have the opportunity to influence the rest of the South.”

Kermit Moore, a Tennessee For All founding member, shared a similar positive take, emphasizing the value of the “No” coalition. “Despite a loss at the ballot box, this fight demonstrates the necessity of labor, faith and community uniting around a common vision, for economic justice and democracy. We built an unprecedented coalition on a shoestring budget, which reached into every county in the state, regardless of whether it was urban or rural. The people who volunteered for the first time during this election, the relationships and organization that was built, it has already made us stronger. We will continue to fight for a Tennessee For All,” said Moore.

While the defeat in Tennessee does represent a setback for unions and workers’ rights, the organizing efforts around No on 1 have solidified the commitment of labor leaders and community organizers to continue the fight.

Illinois: Proactively Protecting Workers Rights From Future Threats

The 2010s were a moment of Republican power and resurgence through much of the Midwest, a place with a history of strong labor and union protections. Many neighboring states had become right-to-work states in recent years with Republican gains. Wisconsin is a neighboring state with a history of an active and radical labor movement. However, with the election of Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2010 and the accompanying Republican legislature, Wisconsin first passed Act 10, which severely limited public sector collective bargaining rights in 2011. Although Walker claimed he would not make Wisconsin a right-to-work state, he passed a law in 2015 making Wisconsin the 25th right-to-work state. This followed the passage of statutory right-to-work laws passed in Indiana and Michigan, with their new Republican post-2010 governments. Relatedly, but less successfully, Missouri brought a right-to-work law to its voters in 2018, but voters defeated this measure nearly 2-1.

During this time, Illinois had a Republican governor who shared these anti-union views. However, unlike Walker and other Midwestern governors, Bruce Rauner faced strong Democratic majorities with deep ties to labor, so he was limited in his ability to limit union rights through executive orders. In 2015, Rauner passed an executive order that curbed the ability of public sector unions from charging “agency fees,” fees that non-union members pay to unions in return for union-provided services. (This was prior to the 2018 Janus Supreme Court decision, which banned public sector agency fees nationally.)

Major Players in the Amendment

The idea of creating a constitutional amendment to enshrine Illinois collective bargaining rights originated from Local 150, International Union of Operating Engineers, outside of Chicago. The union quickly linked up with the Illinois AFL-CIO and the Chicago Federation of Labor to build a broad coalition to support this proposed amendment, which became commonly known as the “Workers’ Rights Amendment.” Unlike in Tennessee, where labor fought a defensive fight against an aggressive institutionalization of long-standing state practice, unions and allies in Illinois were on the offensive, making sure that “no matter what happened with the political climate, workers would always be prioritized and their rights would be protected,” according to Alyssa Goodstein, the communications director of the Illinois AFL-CIO, in a conversation with Truthout.

In addition to the two labor chairs of the Vote Yes for Workers Rights campaign (the presidents of the Illinois AFL-CIO and the Chicago Federation of Labor), the campaign worked with other organizations, including local unions, community organizations, Equality Illinois (an LGBT rights organization), Sierra Club and Democratic elected officials. The campaign was able to raise $15 million, according to Joe Bowen, a spokesperson for the campaign. Most of the funds came from Illinois-based unions, but also additional money raised from national affiliates, considering the high stakes of this referendum. This money was spent on a robust TV campaign, starting in August, a digital ad program and canvassing program, which targeted all potential supporters, from communities of color to traditional conservative strongholds.

Bowen, an electoral campaign veteran, told Truthout that Vote Yes for Workers’ Rights was the “most coordinated campaign that I ever ran.” He noted that grassroots volunteers from a variety of organizations, from unions and beyond, “went out every day, making phone calls from Pilsen to Peoria. [The volunteers] really stepped up to the plate. [It was great] seeing people excite because they could vote for themselves.” In the end, 58 percent of voters supported the amendment, which cleared the threshold of at least 50 percent of all total ballots cast supporting the amendment. What was particularly impressive was that the Workers’ Rights Amendment outperformed Democratic candidates in traditionally Republican areas, according to Bowen.

Like Tennessee, Illinois also faced opposition from similar types of actors. One of the main institutions against the Workers’ Rights Amendment was the Illinois Policy Institute, a libertarian organization which is affiliated with the State Policy Network and the Koch brothers, and the related the Government Accountability Alliance, which donated $1 million to a campaign to defeat the amendment. In addition, Dick Uihlein, the billionaire owner of Uline, a major logistics and distribution company, donated $2 million. The Illinois Chamber of Commerce also came out against the amendment but did not spend much political capital or any money. This anti-amendment coalition also included Republican leaders and elected officials. Similar to Tennessee, the anti-union side made outrageous arguments, ranging from claims that such an amendment would raise property taxes, hurt schools or even make vulnerable children under state care more vulnerable, according to Bowen. Yet in the end, the Yes campaign did an effective job educating voters and union members about the amendment and succeeded in creating a winning coalition in a very diverse state with a robust economy and a large industrial and service sector.

Looking Forward

While Illinois labor leaders are excited about this victory, they see the future similar to the leaders in Tennessee. As Illinois AFL-CIO President Tim Drea told Truthout, “Illinois has about an 18 percent unionized workforce, which is higher than most states, but … [in] this campaign … unions came together and said all workers need a voice. We fought for that 82 percent who are voiceless at job.” The Vote Yes coalition can afford a victory lap, and can enjoy knowing that their rights protected constitutionally and can withstand changing partisan victories. As Bowen stated from his conversations with voters and workers on the doors, “Many people are worried about how they are treated at work and being paid fairly.”

In addition to continuing to organize within Illinois, the Yes on Workers’ Rights campaign hopes they can have a contagion effect in the Midwest region and beyond. Given the Democratic trifectas now in place in nearby in Michigan and Minnesota, campaigners in Illinois are excited to share their experiences and strategies with others. Drea told Truthout that other states may be inspired to pass protections for workers’ collective bargaining rights following Illinois’ victory, as “state legislators will have wind in their sails.” He wanted other places with less union-friendly laws to know “the Illinois AFL-CIO is willing to assist other states in an endeavor to protect workers’ rights. We’re very, very happy to help out other jurisdictions. We are happy to assist.”

But as Tennessee’s history has demonstrated, the mere presence of Democratic majorities in a state does not translate into protections for workers and unions, so labor and community leaders need to lead this fight. Democratic leadership at the national and state level would do well to realign themselves with labor as well. The explosion in new organizing and historic high levels of support for unionization in the U.S. suggests that mobilizing and supporting unions and workers are the key to electoral success in 2024.

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