POLITICS

Elizabeth Warren Calls On Virginia Governor To Overturn Law Hampering Unions

The Massachusetts senator is the first presidential candidate to weigh in on remarks by Gov. Ralph Northam that angered liberals across the country.
Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, seen here addressing supporters in Manchester, New Hampshire, on Saturday
Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, seen here addressing supporters in Manchester, New Hampshire, on Saturday, has cast herself as a champion of organized labor.

Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called on Virginia’s Democratic governor to repeal the state’s anti-union “right-to-work” law on Wednesday, adding to pressure from progressives frustrated with the governor’s doubts about passing such a repeal bill.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) had said at an economic and revenue forecasting meeting on Monday that, despite Democrats winning unified control of the state government earlier this month, he did not “foresee” the party moving to undo the state’s decadeslong status as a hotbed of union hostility.

The comments prompted a torrent of criticism from labor unions and progressive activists peeved that Democrats would refuse to lend a lifeline to workers in the Old Dominion and also forgo the long-term political advantages of making Virginia a union stronghold.

Warren, who is vying for the Democratic presidential nomination and endorsed Northam’s more progressive competitor in a 2017 gubernatorial primary, added her voice to the chorus with a tweet linking to the Richmond Times-Dispatch story that first reported Northam’s comments. “Governor Northam, you have the opportunity to empower unions and working families. You should take it,” she wrote.

A few hours later, Sanders, a fellow progressive, also appealed to Northam on Twitter to change his mind. “Do the right thing. End ‘right-to-work,’” Sanders wrote.

Unions have greater difficulty organizing and maintaining power in “right-to-work” states because those states bar unions from collecting dues from workers they represent in front of management. Some workers choose to “freeload,” or benefit from the union’s protection without contributing, which typically limits a union’s financial resources.

As a result, worker pay overall ― not just among unionized workers ― is lower, on average, in “right-to-work” states. And Democratic Party strength, which benefits from union-driven class consciousness and financial resources, diminishes in those states as well. Republicans were keen to credit the famously contentious evisceration of unions in Wisconsin for Donald Trump’s win in 2016. 

When Democrats retook control of the Virginia state House of Delegates and Senate earlier this month, handing the party its first trifecta in the state in more than a quarter-century, there was some hope that the new cohort of Democrats would be bolder and more populist than previous iterations.  

Northam’s comments were just the latest sign that the left wing of the Virginia Democratic Party has a long way to go. Progressive candidates for leadership in the state’s House Democratic Caucus also fell short in their bids for power days after the election.

And on Wednesday, Northern Virginia activist David Jonas reported on the liberal site Blue Virginia that his wife Casey had received a rude response when she emailed to ask about Democratic state Senate Leader Dick Saslaw’s position on “right-to-work” repeal.  

“Gov came out with strong statement saying No Go. Just for the record ― [Saslaw] has had MANY [chats] with labor groups and made his position abundantly clear,” a member of Saslaw’s staff replied, apparently intending to send the dismissive comment to a fellow staffer. “Don’t reply.”

Saslaw, a businessman who has served in the Virginia legislature since 1978, is famously cozy with corporations, particularly the state’s largest electric utility monopoly, Dominion Energy.

Del. Ibraheem Samirah (D), a progressive dentist who won his Northern Virginia seat in a special election in February, told HuffPost he thinks the slow pace of progress on economic matters like labor union rights reflects a “generational divide” among Virginia’s Democratic lawmakers. The younger state lawmakers are instinctively more receptive to pro-labor arguments, he said. 

“The future is labor in Virginia, whether the political reality allows for it right now or not,” he said.

This story has been updated with Sen. Bernie Sanders’ tweet.

CONVERSATIONS