Virginia Explained: The growing debate (and divide) on right to work

By: - December 11, 2019 7:18 am

A group of union members picketing circa 1938. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

Incoming Democratic majorities in Virginia agree on a lot when it comes to labor policy. They’ve pledged to raise the minimum wage, address paid family leave and ban employment discrimination against LGBT people.

But one question has sharply divided the party and even drawn the attention of two leading Democratic presidential contenders: whether they should use their newfound power to repeal the state’s so-called right to work law.

What’s right to work?

It’s the name supporters of the measure have given to laws that ban compulsory union membership.

In Virginia and the 26 other states that have adopted the legislation, employees in unionized workplaces are still represented in negotiations with management by the union, but they can’t be compelled to join or pay dues.

In non-right-to-work states, “employees who object to full union membership may continue as ‘core’ members and pay only that share of dues used directly for representation, such as collective bargaining and contract administration,” according to the National Labor Relations Board.

Where did it come from?

Virginia lawmakers adopted the legislation in 1947 following a nationwide wave of strikes that prompted an anti-union backlash. Tensions boiled over here as employees of Virginia Electric and Power Company, the predecessor of Dominion Energy, threatened to strike for a 17 cent pay increase, a little over $2 an hour in today’s dollars.

Then-Gov. William Tuck, worried the strike could lead to blackouts for 1.5 million customers and threatened to conscript all the workers into the state militia in a bid to compel them to keep working.

The standoff ended with no strike and no forced labor, but it prompted Tuck to propose the state’s right-to-work legislation in an effort to rein in unions, which he said had grown too powerful.

“Now it is necessary to curb labor,” proclaimed Sen. K. Brock of Farmville, according to an account in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The measure passed with overwhelming support in the General Assembly — with only two state senators opposed.

Why do unions hate it?

Union leaders vehemently opposed the legislation from the beginning. At the first hearing on the proposal way back in ’47, a regional leader of the Congress of Industrial Organizations argued it would be more fittingly titled “A bill to launch Virginia into the union-busting business,” according to an account in the Times-Dispatch, which said the hearing was the most widely attended anyone at the time could remember.

Arguments against it haven’t changed much over the years. Labor leaders say it was designed to weaken unions by strangling their finances and limit their ability to negotiate contracts.

“It’s just a loophole in Virginia’s labor laws that allows workers who decide not to be part of a union to fully benefit from everything unions provide — higher wages, better benefits, protection from unfounded discipline — without, basically, having to pay for it,” said Doris Crouse-Mays, president of the Virginia AFL-CIO.

She said the public can expect a vigorous push for repeal from unions when lawmakers return to Richmond next month.

Why do business leaders love it?

Businesses are opposed to a repeal for pretty much the same reason labor leaders want to see it go — they say it would make it easier to establish unions.

“The unions, a lot of the policies they push for, such as minimum wage, 12 weeks of paid leave, would really impact my small business members,” said Nicole Riley, the Virginia State Director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses. “They can’t afford those state mandates.”

She said it’s not that her members don’t want to offer good pay and benefits to workers — they do, she said. Instead, she opposed a flat mandate that would be unaffordable for small employers.

She said she doesn’t buy the freeloader argument. “There are a lot of small businesses free riding on the work the NFIB is doing, but it’s about us showing value to potential members, and I think unions should have to do that, too.”

Who stands where?

Republicans have expressed unanimous support for keeping right to work on the books. On the other side of the aisle, the debate has divided Democrats along an increasingly familiar fault line. On one side are Democrats typified by former Gov. Terry McAuliffe who believe socially liberal but business friendly policies are the key to winning elections in Virginia. On the other is a growing progressive wing, whose members have eschewed big business interests.

The party’s current leaders have made clear they’re more sympathetic to business than labor in this case. Incoming Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, and Gov. Ralph Northam have both downplayed the likelihood of a repeal of right to work and suggested that they wouldn’t support such a move.

Northam’s comments, which came at a meeting with business leaders last month, drew national attention, with both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren weighing in over the Thanksgiving holiday with calls for Northam to back a repeal. Northam declined to respond at a recent press event, but called a repeal unrealistic compared to other priorities, like job training and addressing issues like worker misclassification.

“Those are things that we’ll concentrate on in January,” he said. “To make Virginia more equitable and again, to keep us business friendly and worker friendly.”

The loudest voice in the legislature in support of repeal has been Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, the sole Democratic Socialist elected to the General Assembly. He put in legislation to repeal the measure last year and says he intends to do so again this year because he views the law as fundamentally anti-worker.

“The only way that you can make sense of the argument to keep right to work is by viewing it through a lens of preserving corporate power,” he said. “It’s not a policy pushed down from the state that says everyone has to join the union, it’s negotiated among workers in workplaces.”

Where’s the public?

Roanoke College polled voters on nine Democratic priorities after the election, and a repeal of right to work was the only one that a majority of respondents did not support.

Asked “Do you favor or opposes laws that would require workers to pay dues to a union if they work in a unionized workplace?” 38 percent of respondents said they favored and 43 percent said they opposed.

Supporters of a repeal argue that response comes down to the way the question was worded. Crouse-Mays with the AFL-CIO noted that a majority of voters (53 percent) opposed a 2016 ballot measure to put the state’s right to work law in the Constitution.

“It got more no votes than Hillary Clinton won in the state of Virginia,” she said.

Is a repeal likely to pass this year?

No. In the Senate, Republicans are unanimous in their support for the existing law. And at least four Democrats in the chamber have said they also share that view, making it highly unlikely a repeal would make it through the chamber, where Democrats will hold a 21-19 majority.

Among those who support maintaining the law are incoming Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond.

“I’m a strong labor supporter but believe that as Dem’s take over both bodies in the legislatures, we need to move forward prudently and cautiously when it comes to Virginia’s fiscal stability and relationship with the business community,” he said in a text message. “Project labor agreements – yes; incremental increase in minimum wage to $15 an hour – yes; living wage – yes. Abolish right to work – no.”

Carter, on the other hand, argues repealing the law would be a strategically good move for the party.

“To my colleagues who are afraid that it might be doing too much, that there might be a backlash, I’d say we’re losing elections because of this law,” he said.

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.