Does Virginia Need a Right-to-Work Law? State Lawmakers Will Have to Decide.

By Ashley Spinks Dugan

January 8, 2021

Virginia’s right-to-work practice faces possible repeal. It’s up to the General Assembly as to what happens next.

RICHMOND- Virginia Del. Lee Carter (D-Manassas) says repealing right-to-work laws is “the sort of thing we need to keep fighting for every year until we get it done.” By all appearances, that’s his plan. Carter, who recently announced that he’s running for governor, introduced repeal legislation in 2019 and 2020. When the General Assembly convenes on Jan. 13, Carter will try yet again. 

In December, Carter filed HB 1755, a bill to “repeal provisions of the Code of Virginia that…prohibit any agreement or combination between an employer and a labor union.” 

Virginia has been a “right-to-work” state since 1947 and is among 26 others throughout the country. Although Carter calls the “right-to-work” label “an intentional misnomer,” essentially what it means is that employers are forbidden from making union membership a condition of employment. 

Advocates for repeal, like Carter, say right-to-work laws allow employees in unionized workplaces to “freeload” off paying union members’ efforts. The laws bankrupt unions by allowing people to avoid union dues, Carter said. Therefore, they “decrease the power of working people in our economy.”

Those who defend right-to-work laws say they protect the right of workers not to join a union. Supporters claim they make Virginia a more attractive place to do business. Delegates only have 30 days to make their cases for various bills in the 2021 session. So will the right-to-work debate come to a head?

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Virginians Split on Right-to-Work

Democrats took control of both houses of the General Assembly in the 2019 election. Soon afterward, Roanoke College polled Virginians on nine Democratic policies. Amending right-to-work laws to “require workers to pay dues in a unionized workplace” was the least popular. It garnered only 38% support. 

Another poll, done by Public Opinion Strategies from January 29 to Feb. 1 last year, found a similar result. Overall, 63% of the 600 people polled oppose the idea of repealing the law. The poll found 56% of Democrats, 74% of Independents and 81% of Republicans don’t want the law eliminated.

That said, while Virginians may not be ready for a full repeal of the law, they aren’t ready to enshrine right-to-work provisions, either. In 2016, Virginians shot down an amendment to ban compulsory union membership in the state constitution. Overall, 53% of voters went against it.

It’s also not just a red vs. blue debate. More moderate Democrats also typically favor the policy. However, at least one poll suggests the idea of repeal is becoming more popular in the Assembly. A 2019 Virginia Chamber poll of state legislators found that about 58% of Assembly members support right-to-work, with 42% saying they don’t support the law.

However, among Democratic lawmakers, support for right-to-work plummets to 10.5%. And among Carter’s colleagues in the House of Delegates, only 6.25% of Democrats said they support the law.

‘No Good Guys or Bad Guys’

“Karl Marx was right.” That’s how Gregory Giordano introduced his explanation of right-to-work laws in a recent phone call. “There’s always going to be this inherent conflict between the proletariat and management,” he said. Giordano is an adjunct professor of labor law at William & Mary Law School, as well as an attorney at the firm Willcox Savage. In labor disputes, Giordano said, “I primarily have represented management.” Lawyers are usually on one team or the other, he explained: management or workers. But “there are no good guys or bad guys,” he said, just two parties with different priorities. 

Right-to-work laws, Giordano said, “prevent union shop clauses.” These are clauses within employment contracts that say any new hire must join the union within 30 days. Otherwise, they’ll be fired. 

In Virginia, though, right-to-work provisions also prevent middle-of-the-road solutions like agency shops. In states that allow agency shop agreements, Giordano explained, “once 51% of the employees vote to get a union in, the union represents everybody, and they have a duty to do that.” The compromise, he said, is “You don’t have to join the union. But because (the union) is representing you, you have to pay your fair share.” Even non-union employees have to compensate the union for the bargaining it does.

Carter thinks taking those types of options off the table is a big problem. “Repealing right-to-work will not force anybody to do anything,” Carter said. “It just allows for unions and employers to agree on those provisions (of collective bargaining), whereas right now those provisions are outlawed.”

Good for Business; Bad for Workers 

During the 2020 session, Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (D-Fairfax) introduced legislation allowing an employer to require payment of these “fair share fees.” The bill died in committee after a Financial Impact Statement argued businesses would struggle under the law.

The statement had a relatively narrow point of view. The Virginia Economic Development Partnership offered almost all the evidence cited in the statement, and most of it came from interviews with corporate executives. One survey showed that “more than 70% of corporate executives and more than 78% of site-selection consultants indicated it is ‘important’ or ‘very important’ for a state to have right to work for location decisions,” the impact statement said. It argued the Commonwealth could lose between $9-25 million in revenue if manufacturers and others no longer considered it business-friendly. In 2019, CNBC called Virginia America’s top state for business.

It’s an accolade Virginia often touts. But it’s seldom accompanied by this related statistic: The state’s also ranked dead last in terms of workers’ rights.

Ashley Spinks Dugan is a freelance reporter for Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected].

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