Could Democratic General Assembly repeal Va.’s right-to-work laws?
Right-to-work backers say repeal would harm Virginia's economic development efforts
Buoyed by the Virginia legislature’s new Democratic majority, bills to repeal Virginia’s right-to-work laws have the greatest chance of making it to the governor’s desk in a generation, predict political scientists.
“I think it absolutely will [get repealed], but it will be a big fight,” says Elsie Harper-Anderson, director of the Ph.D. program in public policy and administration at Virginia Commonwealth University’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs.
As recently as November 2019, however, Gov. Ralph Northam has said that he “can’t foresee” Virginia repealing its right-to-work laws, leaving it an open question as to whether Northam would sign or veto legislation coming out of the General Assembly this session to abolish the commonwealth’s right-to-work laws.
And business leaders, Republicans and even some moderate Democrats are also expected to fight to preserve the right-to-work laws, which are widely touted as a key factor for Virginia’s ranking as the top state for business.
Barry DuVal, president and CEO of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, warns that repealing the state’s right-to-work laws would stifle job expansion and economic growth.
Repealing right-to-work would “create concern for all of Virginia,” DuVal says, but most impacted would be “rural Virginia and small metro Virginia, because they are the most likely to see business expansion of manufacturing and distribution and related jobs that we hope will stay and expand in Virginia. If … right-to-work is eliminated, we will see those jobs go to North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.”
For the second year in a row, Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, has sponsored legislation (HB 153) to completely repeal Virginia’s right-to-work law, while Sen. Majority Leader Richard Saslaw has introduced the Fair Share Act (SB 426), which could require non-union workers at some businesses to pay up to 60% of normal labor union dues as a condition of employment.
While right-to-work laws don’t prohibit unions from organizing in Virginia, they do establish precedent that Virginia workers can’t be fired for refusing to join a union or pay its dues. In Virginia, 4% of workers are union members, compared to 10.3% nationally, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Under Carter’s bill, which is currently in a Senate Commerce and Labor subcommittee, union membership could become a condition of employment and workers could be denied employment based on union membership status.
Saslaw and Carter are backed by organized labor groups. In 2019, Saslaw received $77,000 in funding from labor union groups, while Carter received more than $100,000 in funding, according to VPAP.
Saslaw’s bill would authorize employers to require non-union workers to pay a “fair share fee” — not to exceed 60% of regular union dues — to a related labor union to reimburse that union for representing the interests of the nonmember employee. The partial payment would cover the cost of collective bargaining, administration, enforcement of collective bargaining agreements and representation of employees before public bodies regarding collective bargaining and employer-employee relations. The cost wouldn’t cover political activities, charity or community service by the union, however.
The Fair Share Act was referred to the Senate Committee on Commerce and Labor, which Saslaw chairs, on Jan. 7, but has yet to get any further movement or be placed on a committee docket.
Virginia has a lower percentage of workers in unions due to its right-to-work status, Harper-Anderson says, and repealing it would change the landscape of the percentage of union workers in the state. At the same time, she says, it could have an impact on businesses choosing to locate here.
Other political scientists, including former state Del. David Ramadan, an adjunct professor with the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government, agree that repealing right-to-work could negatively impact Virginia’s position as a top state for businesses.
“Any change in our current right-to-work status is detrimental to Virginia’s economy, jobs and our AAA bond rating,” Ramadan says. “Measures such as ‘fair share’ are back-door entrances to repealing Virginia’s right-to-work laws.”
One central argument for repealing right-to-work legislation, however, is similar to the concept of a potluck. If workers aren’t contributing dues to the union, then they shouldn’t benefit from free labor union representation, argue right-to-work opponents.
“For me, that is only fitting and only fair,” says Roanoke Democrat Del. Sam Rasoul, one of several co-patrons on Carter’s bill to repeal right-to-work in the commonwealth.
Virginia is also one of three states — including North Carolina and South Carolina — that ban collective bargaining for public sector employees, according to the Center for Economic Policy and Research. In Virginia, it is illegal for firefighters, police and teachers to participate in collective bargaining, but that could change this session under a bill sponsored by Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Woodbridge. HB 582, which would repeal the ban on collective bargaining for public employees, has been referred to the House Labor and Commerce Committee.
Republicans however worry that passing such legislation would harm Virginia’s reputation as a business-friendly state.
“These radical pieces of legislation include attacks on our right-to-work law as well as repealing the ban on collective bargaining in the public sector,” says Jack Wilson, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia. “The liberal establishment has turned on our pro-growth business values. Our party will continue to fight to make sure that Virginia doesn’t lose its ranking as the No. 1 place in America to do business.”
In late 2019 — the same year Virginia was ranked as the top state for business — Virginia was also ranked as the worst state for workers.
“I think it’s important to strike a balance,” Rasoul says. “We don’t want to be last for workers. I don’t think that they need to always be mutually exclusive, either. I see these bills as a way to ensure that we balance things out.”
Not only could Democrats win a repeal of Virginia’s right-to work laws, but it would be a chance for the new party in power to assert their dominance on major issues in the state, political analysts say.
“It’s not just about [right-to-work laws],” Harper-Anderson says. “It’s about what changing that law does for the political landscape for Democrats.”
Virginians for Employee Free Choice, a coalition that opposes any changes to Virginia’s right-to-work laws, is backed by the Virginia Chamber of Commerce. The Coalition for a Strong Virginia Economy, comprised of 21 business trade associations is also championing the state;s right-to-work laws. On the other side, however, the Coalition to Repeal “Right to Work” has been formed by union organizers, activists, elected officials and community leaders.
“I definitely don’t think it’ll be an easy thing to push through,” Harper-Anderson says. “There are some moderate Democrats who will be cautious about whether to support this or not. But ultimately, I think that it’s too big of an issue and too big of a win to not get pushed through.”