State Policy Network
Case Study: Beacon Center helps Tennessee adopt right-to-work constitutional amendment

Campaign summary

Goal: Give Tennessee workers a voice and a choice by enshrining right-to-work in the state constitution. 

Results: Thanks to the Beacon Center of Tennessee, the Tennessee Legislature adopted a resolution that protects right-to-work in the state constitution. It will now go to voters through a ballot question in November 2022.

Strategy: Beacon launched a comprehensive campaign in January 2020 to educate Tennessee residents and legislators about what right-to-work is and how it helps Tennessee families. Through timely research, op-eds, coalition-building, meetings, and other outreach, Beacon encouraged state legislators to protect worker freedom in the Volunteer State. Beacon highlighted how the policy is under attack at the federal level and reiterated the importance of cementing right-to-work in the state constitution.

The PRO Act: Federal legislation that would ban right-to-work laws across the country

Americans’ right to opt out of union membership is under attack. Congress is considering the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act—legislation that would upend the country’s labor laws and remove right-to-work in 27 states. But some states are sending a message to DC that they support a worker’s right to choose whether or not they join a union and pay dues. Thanks to the Beacon Center of Tennessee, the Volunteer State is the latest state to do so.

In April 2021, the state legislature passed a constitutional amendment that makes right-to-work a constitutional right in Tennessee. Let’s take a look at how a small organization like Beacon convinced the Volunteer State to take this important step for millions of Tennessee residents. But first, it might be helpful to recall what right-to-work is and how it benefits Americans.

What is right-to-work?

Many people think right-to-work means the right to have a job. But right-to-work involves labor unions, and specifically, if you should be forced to join one as a condition of employment. Right-to-work laws state no person should have to join a union or pay union dues in order to have or keep a job. If a person wants to join a union, they can; right-to-work just ensures they have the freedom to choose for themselves. Twenty-seven states have right-to-work laws on the books. Studies show that right-to-work states attract more new businesses than non-right-to-work states. In addition, workers in right-to-work states enjoy higher incomes than workers in non-right-to-work states.

Beacon launches campaign to enshrine right-to-work in the state constitution

Beacon launched their campaign in the run-up to Tennessee’s 2020 legislative session. Tennessee’s constitutional amendment process is a lengthy one, and it requires lawmakers to pass the amendment in question in two consecutive general assemblies. After it passes through those two assemblies, it goes to the ballot in the following gubernatorial election. With this extensive process in mind, Beacon got to work in early 2020.

Step one: Raise awareness on what right-to-work is and how it helps Tennessee families

The first step Beacon took was craft a messaging plan to educate Tennesseans about what right-to-work is. Most people, including Tennessee residents, have never heard of right-to-work. What’s more, some Tennesseans who were familiar with the policy had an inaccurate picture of what it is. Some opponents of right-to-work—and in some cases, the media—were misconstruing right-to-work. Opponents claimed it means you can be fired for any reason, even without cause. Tennessee does have a policy like this on the books, but it’s called employment at will, not right-to-work. Additionally, teachers’ unions in the state were claiming that right-to-work prevents teachers from striking in Tennessee. Again, Beacon explained that, while it is true that teacher strikes are illegal in the Volunteer State, that’s a separate law that has nothing to do with right-to-work.

Overcoming this education gap and refuting misleading claims was one of the biggest challenges for Beacon, especially from a communications perspective. But Beacon’s relentless outreach and clear messaging proved fruitful. Through blog posts, op-eds, and social media outreach, Beacon offered Tennessee residents an accurate picture of what right-to-work is and how it helps the state. During this part of the campaign, Beacon collected the contact information of thousands of Tennesseans who were interested in right-to-work. These contacts would be critical down the road—when Beacon shifted their focus to the state legislature.

Step two: Convince lawmakers that now is the time to adopt a right-to-work constitutional amendment

After educating the public, Beacon Impact, the lobbying arm of the organization, developed a strategy to convince lawmakers to adopt this important policy during the 2020 legislative session. The stakes were high. Because of the lengthy amendment process, if Beacon did not persuade lawmakers to pass the amendment in 2020, the next opportunity to amend the constitution would be all the way in 2026!

Beacon’s government affairs team created a coalition with the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business—two groups who are proponents of right-to-work. Together, this group answered questions from lawmakers, held one-on-one meetings, and underscored the importance of right-to-work.

Beacon Impact was moving along with their campaign when the pandemic hit in March 2020. Like many state legislatures, the Tennessee General Assembly postponed their session during the state lockdown. The Legislature decided they would reconvene in June 2020, but they would only focus on budget or coronavirus-related items. Right-to-work did not make the list of legislative priorities, leaving it up to Beacon Impact to convince lawmakers to put right-to-work on the agenda. In their messaging, Beacon Impact argued that right-to-work was an important part of reopening the economy after the coronavirus. Adding right-to-work to the state constitution is a way to signal to businesses in other states that Tennessee is back and is open for business.

After persuading lawmakers to consider right-to-work, Beacon Impact encountered another challenge: Several lawmakers had concerns over the “free rider” problem—or the fact that unions have to represent all workers, even those who don’t join the union. Opponents argued workers should be forced to join and pay dues because if they aren’t forced to do so, many would “free ride” on the union’s services and benefits. Beacon shared research with lawmakers that showed this free rider problem doesn’t actually exist. Federal law does not require unions to negotiate and represent non-members—if a union does so, it’s because they are choosing to represent those non-members.

With right-to-work under attack, state legislators send clear message that Tennessee supports worker freedom

Beacon Impact also highlighted how right-to-work is under attack at both the state and federal level. Even though Tennessee is a right-to-work state, all it takes is a simple majority to remove that law. In the last few years, Virginia—a right-to-work state since 1947—introduced legislation to repeal right-to-work. And as mentioned above, the PRO Act would ban right-to-work laws nationwide and strip local unions and businesses of the freedom and flexibility needed to craft workplace agreements.

With these threats in mind, many state lawmakers wanted to signal to Washington that Tennessee supports and protects worker freedom. Beacon Center’s vice president of strategy and communications, Mark Cunningham, added: “Placing right-to-work in the Tennessee Constitution will help protect this right for future generations and sends a clear message to Washington that the states, not the federal government, should control whether workers should be forced to pay union dues.”

The Tennessee Legislature passed the right-to-work amendment on April 29, 2021. The amendment now heads to voters, who have the opportunity to decide its fate in the November 2022 election.  

Why are Americans moving to Tennessee more than any other state? Right-to-work.

Adding right-to-work to the state constitution will help workers, who will have a voice and choice when it comes to union membership.

But it doesn’t stop there. Right-to-work affects Tennessee’s entire economy, and in fact, the policy is a big reason why the state has seen so much success and growth over the last few years. Tennessee is known for its low taxes and widespread opportunity. Unemployment is down, wages are up, and the job market is booming. According to The Wall Street Journal, Nashville is at the top of the list in terms of hottest US job markets.

People from all over the country are moving to Tennessee for these reasons. In fact, a recent analysis found that more people moved to Tennessee than any other state in 2020. Ron Shultis, Beacon’s director of policy and research, added: “Right-to-work is one of the reasons—even if you didn’t understand or know what it is—why those people moved here. It’s what creates the environment for you to be able to get that job, a good house, a lower cost of living. It’s what makes Tennessee attractive for people and businesses.”

Beacon Center’s advice for other state think tanks

Focus on long-term policies

One of the characteristics that sets Beacon apart from other organizations is their focus on the long term. They do not just respond to issues of the day—Beacon is intentional about thinking well ahead into the future and forecasting the different scenarios and environment the state may find itself in.

For example, one of the main reasons why Beacon launched this campaign was because they knew it was possible then-candidate Joe Biden—someone who has been against right-to-work his entire career—could win the presidential election. That could mean revived efforts to repeal right-to-work. Rather than wait and react after the presidential election, Beacon anticipated this scenario and launched their campaign to protect right-to-work in early 2020. Shultis added:

“When groups like ours think about policies, we understandably tend to focus on what are the issues of the day. But you can have a real opportunity to distinguish your group and raise your profile by focusing on things that otherwise wouldn’t happen if it wasn’t for you. There is no way [adopting a right-to-work constitutional amendment] would have happened without Beacon saying we should take advantage of this opportunity and act.”

Communicate with your entire team

Beacon is also intentional about communicating with the entire team throughout issue campaigns like these. The pandemic forced the organization to work remotely, but Beacon made sure the lines of communication remained open. The team met weekly to discuss the materials each department needed and to ensure they were all aligned towards the same goal: passing a right-to-work constitutional amendment.

Cunningham noted: “The one thing I hear from other state think tanks is they are not always on the same page or some departments are off doing their own thing and they are not talking. Our consistent talking and understanding each other’s’ needs helps us be even more effective.”

Understand different audiences have different needs

Beacon reiterated that it’s important for an organization to understand different audiences have different needs. Messages that resonate with the public won’t necessarily resonate with lawmakers or the media. You have to know your audience and identify what’s going to work for them.

Additional Resources

The PRO Act: Federal Legislation That Will Upend America’s Labor Laws
State Policy Network

12 Ways the PRO Act Will Hurt America’s Workers
State Policy Network

How to Select Policy Priorities: Case Studies from State Think Tanks
SPN’s Member Portal

Categories: Policy Solutions
States: Tennessee
Organization: State Policy Network
Professional Topics: Strategy