Column: Legislators wasted no time in banning ‘labor peace’ deals

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently issued a report and news release hailing the Tennessee Legislature’s approval in April of a bill prohibiting state and local governments from enacting “labor peace” laws.

Seems we’re one of three states to enact a such a ban — the others being Georgia and Louisiana. “Labor peace” laws, also known as “labor neutrality” acts, are on the books in 11 states and the District of Columbia.

Basically, the “peace” or “neutrality” laws apply when an employer is getting some government money, and the laws set some rules regarding union organizing activity. The rules go farther than current federal labor law, which leads the chamber to declare they can “force employers to waive their rights under federal labor law.”

“Unions are currently pushing labor peace ordinances in nearly a dozen additional states,” said Glen Spencer, vice president of the chamber’s Workforce Freedom Initiative, in the news release. “The Legislature was wise to take on this issue before it took root in Tennessee.”

Actually, virtually no chance exists of “labor peace” laws taking root in Tennessee, which is a right-to-work state with declining union membership. And wise — in the sense of being thoughtful or deliberative — might be an overstatement of the Legislature’s handling of the chamber proposal, which is similar to a model law suggested by the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Passage of SB1017 didn’t get much attention in April and a review of legislative videotapes from committee and floor sessions helps explain why. Not a lot of effort was expended in the official proceedings, though presumably the five registered lobbyists for the U.S. Chamber spent some time talking with legislators prior to the sessions.

The Senate Commerce Committee spent exactly three minutes, 38 seconds on the bill before passing it unanimously. The bill cleared the Senate floor with just two minutes, 20 seconds elapsing between the announcement that the bill was up and a final vote taken. All Republicans voted yes and five Democrats voted no.

In the House, the bill cleared a subcommittee on voice vote in four minutes, 29 seconds, including the time it took the chairwoman to refuse to let a labor union representative ask questions. The bill cleared the House floor in four minutes, 38 seconds with all voting Republicans backing the bill and 16 Democrats saying no.

The only bump in the road to smooth passage — most of the little time devoted to the bill came when the Republican sponsors, Rep. Andy Holt of Dresden and Sen. Mike Bell of Riceville, read from a prepared script — came between the subcommittee and the floor, where the House Consumer and Human Resources Committee engaged in an 18 minutes, 22 seconds discussion. A good chunk of that came when House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner made a somewhat sarcastic rhetorical denouncement of the bill and Republicans in general.

No state or local government has ever enacted a labor neutrality law in Tennessee, Turner noted, and no need exists to ban them, especially when the proposal had not been adequately explained. He asked for a week’s delay in the vote; the chairman said no.

“We’re passing all kinds of bills (under the Republican supermajority) and nobody knows what we’re doing,” declared Turner. “The people of Tennessee get what they deserve. They elected you guys and if you’re going to run this crap down their throats, that’s what they deserve.”

Holt remarked that Turner was making an attempt at “brow beating” the committee. His outburst was otherwise ignored.

A union representative suggested that the bill could block voluntary agreements between a company and a union. Holt and a chamber lobbyist assured him that was not the case.

“We are putting something into code to guarantee that, at some future date, someone in state government doesn’t do something that is unfriendly to business,” explained House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada.

When the bill reached the floor, Turner had accepted the inevitable. He stood up, noted there was no threat of “labor peace” breaking out in Tennessee, sat down and became one of the 16 Democratic no votes.

A minor curiosity in the Senate’s rush to enact the bill was an amendment that eliminated language that declared the Legislature cannot enact a “labor peace” law. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jack Johnson pointed out that no Legislature can bind a future Legislature. So the language was changed in a bow to that principle: The Legislature can tell local governments what to do or not to do; it cannot tell legislators of the future what to do.

In other words, despite Casada’s comments, there’s no guarantee. If Tennessee legislators and the governor at some future date are transformed into union-loving liberals, the anti-labor peace law can be repealed as quickly as it passed.

So we have a law that accomplishes nothing now and, if it were ever needed, would promptly become pointless via repeal.

Indeed, the measure could even be a candidate for consideration by the new Office of the Repealer, set up by a legislative enactment this year, with the goal of finding unnecessary laws on the books so the Legislature can repeal them. Casada was the House sponsor.

In today’s Tennessee political environment, however, symbolic gestures and preaching to the choir are deemed important enough to warrant passage of a new law by most legislators.

At least if they don’t waste a lot of time on it.

(Note: This is a column written for the Knoxville Business Journal, also available HERE.)