How Virginia’s new Democratic majority looks to restore, expand workers’ rights

Photo via Bert Shepherd

By Carolyn Fiddler

January 26, 2024

Virginia, one of the nation’s 27 so-called “right to work” states, has historically been hostile to expanding access to collective bargaining and union rights. Democratic lawmakers are pushing to change that in the 2024 General Assembly session.

Sen. Jennifer Boysko and Del. Kathy Tran have introduced bills that would repeal Virginia’s ban on collective bargaining by public employees.

“Our communities are stronger when all workers have the collective voice to bargain for better pay and better benefits and better working conditions,” said Tran.

Boysko sponsored a measure in 2020 that allowed collective bargaining for employees of local governments that adopted ordinances permitting it; that law excludes state-level employees, higher education workers, and state-paid contractors. The new legislation would expand collective bargaining to other public sector employees all across the commonwealth and place the decision to unionize in the hands of workers instead of local governments.

“This year’s bill builds on that progress by ensuring that our dedicated public service professionals have the fundamental right to join the union and engage in collective bargaining, regardless of their zip code,” said Boysko at a recent press conference. “We need to extend the freedom to ensure that all of our public sector workers in Virginia, including our teachers, and our social workers, our homecare workers and campus workers at public universities, have the right to negotiate for fair wages and safe working conditions.”

The statute banning collective bargaining in Virginia has been in place since 1947. The prohibition was largely a reaction to the Black University of Virginia Hospital’s nurses, janitors, and orderlies attempting to unionize in 1946. Despite the union’s technical illegality, it achieved remarkable wins like reducing hours worked from 72 to 48 and increasing salaries by 100% through collective action.

Democratic Del. Katrina Callsen is also sponsoring pro-worker legislation. Her bill would allow local and regional public transportation boards to recognize and bargain with labor unions.

At a recent press conference, Virginia Commonwealth University adjunct instructor and doctoral candidate Jenna Gabriel spoke about the tremendous impact Boysko’s and Tran’s legislation would have on her and her university colleagues.

“Collective bargaining would be life-changing for my co-workers,” Gabriel said. “Having a voice on the job would allow us to negotiate for the issues we care about. Less tenuous contracts, safe spaces to live and work, class sizes that allow us to support our students, paid time off to care for our families, health insurance, child care, fair wages, the list goes on.”

A Christopher Newport University poll found that 68% of Virginians strongly support allowing public sector employees to unionize and bargain collectively.

These pro-union measures are working their way through the Democratic-majority state House and Senate. Should they pass, Gov. Glenn Youngkin will have the opportunity to sign them into law, although he’s already indicated that he’ll veto legislation that gives Virginia workers the right to collectively bargain.

“Please don’t bring me a bill that impacts Virginians’ right to work, as it will be met with the business end of my veto pen,” Youngkin said earlier this month.

  • Carolyn Fiddler

    Carolyn Fiddler is Dogwood's chief political correspondent. She is also the nation’s foremost expert in state politics with almost two decades of experience in statehouse machinations, and her comic book collection is probably bigger than yours.



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