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Report on Public Employee Unions in Tennessee

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Reviewed Date: January 03, 2017

Original Author: 
Darden, Don
Date of Material: 
Jan 31, 2002

Personnel--Labor relations
Personnel--Employee relations

Report on Public Employee Unions in Tennessee

Cities need to deal with municipal practices that often create in city employees the desire to organize and join a union.

Knowledgebase-A Report on Public Employee Unions in Tennessee


Prepared by:

Don Darden
Municipal Management Consultant
The University of Tennessee Municipal Technical Advisory Service
January 2002

Tennessee is an “at will” employment State, and yet, in Tennessee cities today, we have had and continue to have unions in street departments and other departments of city government. Many fire departments have organized, and their employees are members of public employee unions. We have seen city charters amended to require “cause” for dismissal as a response to the need for employee job protection, and in some cities civil service has been instituted as a way of providing job protection. Public employees are not prohibited from organizing or joining a union; however, under Tennessee laws, cities are not authorized to enter into collective bargaining agreements with public employee unions.

In the discussions about the prospects of public employee unions in Tennessee cities, we hear about added costs due to additional management and attorney’s time, development of adversarial relationships between management and employees, mediocrity of work carried out by union employees, the unique nature of public employment, especially as it relates to utilities and police and fire, and other such factors. Our lobbying has consisted of getting as many elected officials as possible to call their legislators and beat the proposed unionization bills down. This approach has worked, but it will not continue to work until cities deal with municipal practices that often create in city employees the desire to organize and join a union. What are some of these practices?

1. Perpetuation of low pay. Often we hear that city employees are overpaid,even when there is a significant difference between other public and private agencies doing the same or similar work. Every city in Tennessee should pay their employees based on (1) a bona fide salary compensation plan, or (2) the MTAS salary survey. This tells the employee that his/her services are valued, and that the city is committed to dealing fairly with its employees in matters of pay.

2. Favoritism in hiring, promotions, and pay. If item number 1 above is carried out, pay should be a much smaller issue. Personnel administration that adheres to job descriptions and classifications and promotions based on qualifications and performance should go a long way to help resolve this issue.

3. Clean House on Election Day. There are examples of where a candidate for Mayor has determined that firing all city employees is all that is needed to “straighten city hall out.” In more than one city, such candidates have been elected, and they have fired all city employees. One council member has related that he campaigned for office on the platform that he would help fire the city administrator and then found, upon taking office, that the administrator was not the problem.

4. City leaders sometimes appoint or retain incompetent managers (police, fire, administrator, etc.) and this causes much frustration on the part of operating employees. This factor has been identified, by the MTAS fire safety consultant, as the leading cause of the effort to organize firefighter unions.

5. City Employees getting involved in municipal elections. Often city employees go out of their way to publicly take a position for or against a candidate for public office. If the employee supports the candidate who fails in his/her attempt to obtain elected office, then the elected official will naturally go after the employee.

Given this state of affairs and the continued effort to amend State laws to allow cities to bargain collectively with public employee unions, it is very important that cities across the State take appropriate steps to remedy practices that promote organization of public employees. Listed below are things that all cities should be doing to prevent public employee unions:

1. Improve working conditions. Make sure that the city’s employees feel that the city is concerned about their safety and well being, that employees have adequate tools to do their job, and that the employees know what is expected of them in performing their jobs.

2. Train elected officials. This should give city officials a better understandingof what a city is and how it works. Participation in the Elected Officials Academy would be a great help in this area; however, often the very cities that need the training the worst do not feel the need for the training. The State of Tennessee should require all city elected officials to participate in mandatory training, upon election, through the Elected Officials Academy. This would be a lot cheaper and less inconvenient than dealing with civil service and public employee unions.

3.Job Evaluations should be based on Performance. It is not uncommon for elected officials to feel that city employees are not doing their jobs when the employees have not been told what they are expected to do. Elected officials should develop clearly defined goals and objectives for their employees and communicate what is expected of each employee and then hold the employee accountable for job performance. It is not reasonable to require job performance when the employee has no idea of what is expected in the way of job performance. Job descriptions are not a substitute for performing work that is based on pre-established goals and objectives. MTAS should sponsor training on how to implement this needed improvement. [MTAS is now doing this through its Municipal Management Academy, on Performance Appraisal}

4. Stress the importance of good personnel practices. Good personnel practices tell the employee that he is being treated fairly. Cities should not administer personnel policies arbitrarily or with favoritism.

5. Staggered board terms. Staggered board terms do much to ensure stabilityin personnel administration, and there is less likelihood of across the board employee dismissals when board terms do not all expire at the same time.

6. Professional employees. Every city should make an earnest effort to recruit and retain professional employees. If professional employees are hired, and the governing board and general public know that they are professional it is much more difficult to dismiss employees at election time.

7. Pay employees a fair wage or salary for a day’s work. This is bestaccomplished though a job classification and pay plan or by using the MTAS salary survey as a guide. Whichever way the city chooses to carry this out, the employees should be made to feel that the city is treating them fairly. Employee frustrations are sometime heightened when the city council pays an accounting clerk more than the finance director or the assistant fire chief more than the fire chief, as has been done in some cities. The city will have fewer problems with “pay” and “fairness” if it pays for performance—where the employee has a clear understanding of what he is expected to perform and then is held accountable. If every employee receives a 3% annual increase, what is the incentive for an employee to perform? This is certainly contrary to the old argument that “it costs as much for one employee to live as another.” On that basis cities could pay all employees the same regardless of their education and skills, performance, and responsibilities.

8. Reinstate laws on political limitations. Employees should be allowed andencouraged to vote in all city elections. If the employee campaigns openly and publicly for a particular mayoral candidate, and another candidate is elected mayor, it is reasonable to assume that the new mayor will be after those who campaigned against him/her. City employees should, therefore, not be allowed to serve on the governing board as a city employee and should be prohibited from openly campaigning for or against candidates for city office. Under no circumstance should a city employee be permitted to campaign on city time and in city uniform. It should be understood by every city employee that the right to participate in the political process, insofar as campaigning for a particular candidate is concerned, is not without consequence. Often employees want to campaign and, at the same time, they want job protection. The best job protection is to abstain from campaigning and serve the city as a professional employee. More progressive cities of today promote professionalism in city employment and retention.


MTAS recommends that the Tennessee Municipal League:

1.Continue its efforts to oppose collective bargaining with city employees.

2. Support legislation requiring all newly elected city officials to participate in the Elected Officials Academy. MTAS should be requested to develop one or more components to the academy dealing with many of the issues discussed in this report.

3.Support legislation to repeal the State statute that allows cities to enact ordinances allowing city employees to serve on governing boards and prohibiting city employees from openly campaigning for or against candidates for city office.


About Our Knowledgebase

Information written by MTAS staff was based on the law at the time and/or a specific sets of facts. The laws referenced may have changed and/or the technical advice provided may not be applicable to your city or circumstances. Always consult with your city attorney or an MTAS consultant before taking any action based on information posted to this website.