Anti-Union Bills in TN: Kicking a Dog When He’s Down?

(Note: This is an unedited version of a column written for Knoxville Business Journal. The edited version, trimmed somewhat, is HERE.)
Given that Tennessee is a right-to-work state and has one of the lowest union membership levels in the nation, one might think that there’s not much to be done in the way of new anti-labor legislation.
One would be wrong, however, at least judging by the plethora of bills in the General Assembly to slap new requirements, restrictions, prohibitions and other impediments on associations or employee organizations.
“We want to help Gov. Haslam meet his goal of making Tennessee the No. 1 destination for jobs in the Southeast,” explained Mack Cooper, who once upon a time was lobbyist for Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen and who today is lobbying for passage of a half-dozen labor-bashing bills drafted and pushed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Being against unions has reached a new peak of fashionableness in the new Republican super majority of Legislatorland. But in some cases, it is being argued that the bills are either meaningless or even cause more problems for business than for labor.
For the meaningless argument, consider HB1585, one of the U.S. Chamber’s “model” bills, which proposes, as introduced, would have imposed a six-page list of new disclosure and reporting requirement on the Tennessee State Employees Association.


When sponsoring Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, brought it before a House subcommittee, he began his presentation by speaking of “public employee unions.
“Tennessee doesn’t have any public employee unions,” House State and Local Government Committee Chariman Curry Todd, R-Collierville, immediately interjected.
He had the committee legal counsel explain that TSEA is “a lobbying group for state employees” prohibited by state law from negotiating a contract, staging a strike or any other such activities associated with unions.
Well, responded Ragan, he had actually negotiated an amendment with TSEA. It would declare that the state employees’ lobby could comply with the myriad of disclosure requirements by simply filing it’s IRS Form 990.
That’s the form required annually by federal law for all non-profit groups – including the U.S. Chamber — that want to remain exempt from federal taxes. It lists basic revenues and expenditures – nothing like the detail required by the bill, such as financial holdings of all officers and their families, lobbyist fees paid, etc.
In other words, with the amendment, the bill would require TSEA to do what it is already doing, nothing more. And it wouldn’t apply to any other organization in the state, though all that other language would remain.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner declared that there was thus no need for the bill and House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, after thumbing through the bill, noted it has language that “wouldn’t even effect Tennessee.”
McCormick asked Ragan to drop the bill for this year and he agreed.
A perhaps more prominent bill, SB1031. declares that unions in Tennessee cannot block a member from quitting the organization whenever he or she wishes by prohibiting so-called “maintenance of membership” clauses in union contracts.
Sponsors contend that this logically supplements the state right-to-work laws that have been in effect since 1947, forbidding contracts that require union membership as a condition of employment.
(Incidentally, according to 2010 U.S Department of Labor statistics, Tennessee has 115,000 union members, or 4.7 percent of employed Tennesseans, down from 5.1 percent in 2009. Ketron, maintenance of membership, SB1031 by Ketron, Another 27,000 Tennesseans are represented by a union because they work where there is a union contract, but are not union members.)
While the bill sounds like a new restriction on unions in theory, Turner and others said in House floor debate that it is in reality “worker-friendly” while potentially creating a “paperwork nightmare” for employers.
As a practical matter, Turner said, most contracts now give employees a one-a-year option to get in or out of a union dues checkoff – just as they do with signing up for health insurance and other benefits. With the bill, he said, employees will be able to jump in or out of a union from month to month.
Many will do so, he predicted, based on his membership in a firefighters association that once had an in-or-out-anytime dues checkoff arrangement with the city of Nashville until the city insisted on the one-change-per-year rule.. Typically, a member will quit after a dispute, say, with aother member, then rejoin next month in time to attend the union picnic.
Turner said the paperwork for employers was the only problem he saw with the bill, which otherwise benefits unions because they can join at anytime as well as leave.
“Seems to me what we’re doing is impairing the rights of business and labor to contract with each other for something that mutually benefits them,” said Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, during Senate debate.
The bill passed both the House and Senate with all Republicans and, in the House, most all Democrats voting for it.
Ragan, perhaps not incidentally, had more success with a bill (HB1586) that eliminates “labor disputes” as a reason for issuing injunctions under the state’s “workplace violence” law — a move that state AFL-CIO President Jerry Lee said may violate provisions of federal labor law.
During a subcommittee hearing, Todd said the bill was unnecessary since anyone committing a crime could be arrested anyway, union member of otherwise.
“This is just kicking a dog when he’s down,” Todd said at one point, apparently referring the unions current low status on the Legislature’s political totem pole.
Still, Todd wound up voting for the bill when it passed the House floor – with zero discussion – by a lopsided 87-9 margin.

4 thoughts on “Anti-Union Bills in TN: Kicking a Dog When He’s Down?

  1. Wintermute

    Tom, using the term “labor-bashing” is not congruent with the reputation for fairness you have built with me. I presume you are a union member as most employees are here in Memphis at yopur siter paper. Perhaps a disclosure of possible bias belongs in your pieces on this matter.
    Consider that our legislators may be removing some legal privileges that they never should have received from prior General Assembvlies under the sway of unions’ extensive lobbying and electioneering activities.
    Consider also that some of the activities unions engage in would be illegal as conspiracies in restraint of trade were it not for the Congress making them specially favored and exempted under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and other federal legislation.
    We can’t afford the union status quo. Its special benefits for its members have hurt our competitiveness in the world economy and diminished the economic well-being of nonmembers of these privileged groups.

  2. Tom Humphrey

    Wintermute,
    I am not a union member. Some News Sentinel employees are, but the Guild contract explictly exempts the Nashville bureau chief (which is my official title) and has for all 26-odd years I have worked in the position. One could thus make the argument that I am biased against unions because I am not a member?
    Also, I don’t believe the term ‘labor-bashing’ is used anywhere in the item. It’s a column for the News Sentinel’s business-oriented magazine and is intended to point out a trend and some bills that may not have gotten a lot of attention… and perhaps provoke some thought that all bills are not always what they seem.
    I don’t think I’m biased one way or the other on union stuff. But, as always, appreciate your commentary and please keep it coming.

  3. Observer43

    Thank you Tom for what I perceive as fair and balanced reporting. There are occasions that I cringe at some of the articles, but that is what true journalism is about.
    Wintermute, I don’t don’t always agree with you, but surprisingly I find my self agreeing with you more than I thought I would. There is very little difference between the “moderate right” and the “moderate left” which I believe comprises 75% of Tennesseans (although many of them won’t believe that due to Party affiliation).. The true difference in modern times is Corporations vs People.

  4. Observer43

    Thank you Tom for what I perceive as fair and balanced reporting. There are occasions that I cringe at some of the articles, but that is what true journalism is about.
    Wintermute, I don’t don’t always agree with you, but surprisingly I find my self agreeing with you more than I thought I would. There is very little difference between the “moderate right” and the “moderate left” which I believe comprises 75% of Tennesseans (although many of them won’t believe that due to Party affiliation).. The true difference in modern times is Corporations vs People.

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