Lee distances himself from false claims on ballot proposal

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, center left, is greeted at the Express Lunch Stop restaurant, the...
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, center left, is greeted at the Express Lunch Stop restaurant, the first stop on his campaign bus tour, Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022, in Crossville, Tenn.(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Updated: Nov. 3, 2022 at 9:27 PM CDT
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CROSSVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Gov. Bill Lee on Thursday distanced himself from a claim attributed to him falsely alleging that employees will be forced to pay union dues if the state’s so-called right-to-work law is not enshrined in the state constitution.

Last week, organizers behind the proposed constitutional amendment posted a message they said came from the Republican governor. The statement included a long list of reasons supposedly from Lee on why the amendment would benefit Tennessee, but it also had Lee warning that if the amendment fails “hard-working Tennesseans will be FORCED to fall in line, pay union dues, and join organizations that give payouts to political cronies.”

“I didn’t make that tweet,” Lee told The Associated Press at a campaign stop.

The tweet was posted Oct. 25 by the Vote Yes on 1 committee, where Lee serves as the state chairman.

Justin Owen, who is on the group’s executive committee, did not directly answer questions about Lee distancing himself from the recent post or how Lee’s name came to be on the message. Instead, he pointed out that the current Democratic-controlled House has approved a bill that would make it easier for workers to form unions and bargain for higher wages, also known as the “Protecting the Right to Organize” or PRO Act.

“The fact is, if the PRO Act passes the U.S. Senate, our right-to-work protections would indeed be eliminated, forcing all Tennesseans to pay dues in a unionized workplace whether they wanted to be members of the union or not,” Owen said.

Tennessee voters are currently weighing whether to change the state constitution to add existing law that bans a company and a union from contracts that require workers to pay dues to the union representing them. Proponents, which include Lee and other top Republican politicians, call the prohibitions “right-to-work” law. Unions oppose the change and the right-to-work label.

However, the amendment’s wording isn’t as straightforward as some other ballot initiatives, including an anti-abortion proposal that failed in Kansas earlier this year. That has given proponents and opponents more power over characterizing Tennessee’s proposed change.

The message the Vote Yes on 1 group posted in particular sparked swift outrage among Democrats and labor advocates, who countered that Tennessee’s 75-year-old “right-to-work” law will still remain regardless of the outcome on Election Day. The Tennessee AFL-CIO called the message “fearmongering at its best” while Democratic state Rep. John Ray Clemmons called it “a blatant lie.”

Lee maintained his support of the constitutional amendment on Thursday.

“It would secure protection for workers in our state,” he said. “It’s been that way for many years, but making it a part of the constitution will ensure that it’s protected.”

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Kruesi reported from Nashville, Tenn.