Davidson County Election Commission stock vote

Tennessee is not the easiest place to be a labor organizer. 

The state’s most powerful people, like Gov. Bill Lee, actively lobby against union drives. Tennessee teachers were stripped of collective bargaining power more than a decade ago. And in November, Tennessee voters will decide whether to add “right to work” language — provisions that undermine union power by allowing workers to benefit from collective bargaining without paying dues, which has been state law for decades — to the state constitution. 

With that forthcoming vote in mind, employees of the Tennessee Democratic Party have decided to unionize with IBEW Local 429 — the local chapter of the electrical workers’ union that also represents Democratic Party workers in several other states. Party leadership has decided to voluntarily recognize the union. 

Though the staffers behind the organizing effort acknowledge the symbolism of making the move in Tennessee’s challenging organizing climate, they say the push is mostly about the material concerns of current and future employees, in part inspired by challenges faced by past party employees. 

“Under previous administrations, there have been some firings that came out of left field,” said Cassie Jackson, TNDP digital director. “We wanted to make it so that could never happen under any administration, even after we’re gone. We want to protect workers in terms of compensation and the amount of hours that we work and help the Tennessee Democratic Party live up to its values that it claims to hold.”

Organizers are demanding that the party’s executive committee add a progressive disciplinary structure into party bylaws. 

Additionally, union supporters say that a negotiated contract could help Tennessee keep talented young political operatives from leaving for jobs in Washington, D.C., or flashier races in more competitive states. 

“We have a skill drain to other states,” said special projects manager Jason Miller. “We’re trying to keep those folks.”

TNDP Chair Hendrell Remus said the decision to voluntarily recognize the union stemmed from a desire to “live out those Democratic values that we have professed to believe in.”

“Our party has talked extensively about supporting unions, supporting the rights for employees to organize, making sure people can retire with dignity and have good wages and a safe workplace,” he said. “But for a long time, we’ve only talked about that. We are all in support of employees having a right to unionize and being able to express that right through organizing. There really wasn’t any significant differences for us to not voluntarily recognize them. We just had to work out some kinks on what the bargaining unit would look like, and beyond that, there was no reason to force a vote on it.”

That could remain a sticking point, as union organizers want the bargaining unit to be as big as possible — including employees of coordinated campaigns jointly established by the state party and major candidates as well as TNDP-funded organizers working for county parties. 

“Right now, the focus is on the staff,” Remus said. “When we get into the collective bargaining part of this, we’ll have to decide if we want to include coordinated employees in this overall staff agreement or if we just want to focus on our core staff.”

Added Jackson: “I can say very strongly that we want to support and have as many workers that qualify as part of our bargaining unit as possible so they can be protected.”

The bargaining process is still some weeks off, and Remus said he will seek executive committee approval of any negotiated contract with the staff. Anyone who has sat through an executive committee meeting (for either of the state’s two major parties) knows that nothing is guaranteed when that group of party leaders gathers.