As he runs for a second term, Terry McAuliffe is presenting himself as a policy-heavy candidate, talking up the 130 pages of “big bold plans” listed on his website. But the former governor, seen as a strong favorite to win his party’s nomination for governor in next week’s primary, has studiously avoided taking a clear position on one of his party’s major policy divides: repealing Virginia’s longstanding right-to-work law.
Three of five candidates in the Democratic gubernatorial field — former delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Del. Lee Carter — support repealing the law, which impedes the power of organized labor by allowing workers to avoid paying mandatory union dues. Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, has said she supports pro-union policies but doesn’t support compulsory union fees.
Cheap labor has long been part of Virginia’s pitch to prospective businesses, owing partly to the right-to-work law that’s been on the books since 1947.
“In Virginia, we put corporate partners first,” McAuliffe wrote in a 2017 letter to Amazon as part of the state’s successful effort to land the online giant’s HQ2 project.
In the 2013 gubernatorial race, then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli tried to portray McAuliffe as against right-to-work. Politifact rated that claim false, noting McAuliffe told a business group: “We are a great right-to-work state. We should never change that.”
This year, Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin is also accusing McAuliffe of being against right-to-work. In a TV appearance on Fox Business last month, Youngkin accused McAuliffe of wanting to force workers to give up some of their paychecks to his “union boss friends.”
If McAuliffe’s position has changed at all since Democrats took over full control of the Virginia statehouse, he’s not letting it show. When asked recently where McAuliffe stands on right-to-work, his campaign responded with a general statement that didn’t address right-to-work at all.
“As governor, Terry will lead Virginia’s continued recovery from COVID by creating good-paying jobs and investing in Virginia workers,” said McAuliffe campaign spokesman Jake Rubenstein, highlighting McAuliffe’s support for achieving a $15 minimum wage by 2024, paid leave and raises for teachers.
However, McAuliffe was a little clearer in a discussion earlier this year with the Democratic Business Council of Northern Virginia.
“If it came to my desk, sure I’d sign it,” McAuliffe said according to a video clip of the event. “But listen, you can’t get it through the House and Senate.”
McAuliffe also referenced an effort to bring a right-to-work repeal bill to a vote on the House floor earlier this year. That effort was defeated in an 83-13 vote, but some Democrats at the time insisted the vote was procedural, not a measure of support for the underlying policy.
That stance leaves McAuliffe about where current Gov. Ralph Northam was in his 2017 gubernatorial primary against former congressman Tom Perriello, when Northam suggested Democrats focus on other pro-union measures like project labor agreements instead of leaning into a right-to-work fight “we perhaps can’t win right now.”
Since that time, Democrats have flipped enough seats to pass progressive policies that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, most recently legalizing marijuana and ending the death penalty. They’ve also passed some pro-worker legislation, including bills to allow collective bargaining by local government employees and raising the minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2023. But party leaders have remained resistant to a full-on discussion of repealing right-to-work, even though a majority of Virginia voters rejected a 2016 attempt to enshrine right-to-work in the state Constitution through a ballot referendum.
Carter, who sponsored right-to-work repeal legislation in the House of Delegates and pressed leadership to allow a vote on it, argues that puts Virginia’s Democratic leaders out of step with the national party’s platform, which declares opposition to “so-called ‘right to work’ laws that undermine worker power and lead to lower wages and less protection for workers across the economy.”
“The only holdouts to that policy are in the General Assembly and in the governor’s mansion right now,” Carter said at the so-called People’s Debate in mid-March, a virtual candidate forum organized by progressive groups.
At the same event, McClellan said she believes union membership should “remain a choice.”
“But other than that, anything that is standing in the way of organizing and collective bargaining I will push to get rid of,” she said.
Responding to the same question, both Fairfax and Carroll Foy said they favor repealing right-to-work.
“And that did not get stuck in my throat,” Carroll Foy said, an apparent jab at candidates who don’t support repeal.
McAuliffe, who has major union support in the primary from AFSCME District Council 20 and the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA), chose not to participate in that event.
In response to Carter’s repeal bill, the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, the state agency tasked with luring new business projects, warned Virginia losing its status as the northernmost right-to-work state on the East Coast could cause an $8 million to $26 million hit to the state budget.
“Over the previous 18 months, Virginia saw nearly 153 projects in the manufacturing and supply chain sectors representing 11,791 jobs and $2.7 billion in capital investment,” officials wrote in a fiscal impact statement attached to Carter’s bill. “VEDP believes many of these announcements would not have occurred if Virginia were not a ‘’right to work’ state when companies made their location decisions.”
Legislators have long complained that state agencies put out inflated cost estimates to try to defeat policies they don’t like.
The Democratic primary for governor is June 8.
UPDATE: This article and its headline have been updated to add information from a video clip provided to the Mercury in which Terry McAuliffe said he would sign legislation repealing Virginia’s right-to-work law but doubted it would ever pass the legislature.