In a bit of good news for labor unions, Virginians voted down a ballot initiative Tuesday that would have enshrined the state’s right-to-work status in the state constitution.
Unions in Virginia campaigned hard against the proposal, which was supported by business groups and Republican lawmakers. Virginia has had a right-to-work law on the books for decades, but the ballot measure would have effectively made it permanent.
Right-to-work laws forbid contracts between unions and employers that require all employees in a workplace to pay the union for bargaining on their behalf. Under U.S. labor law, unions have to represent all employees in a particular bargaining unit, even those who want nothing to do with a union. Unions say it’s only fair that everyone chip in to cover the costs of representation.
In states with right-to-work laws, employees in unionized workplaces aren’t obligated to pay any fees to the union, allowing them to opt out completely. Conservatives refer to this as “workplace freedom,” but unions call it “free riding.” Whatever you want to call it, it’s been the reality in Virginia since 1947, when changes in federal law first allowed states to pursue right-to-work laws. It’s one reason union membership is so low in Virginia when compared with other states.
But the prevailing state of affairs in Virginia wasn’t sufficient for backers of what was called Constitutional Amendment Question 1 on the ballot. If approved, the measure would have amended the state constitution so that Virginia could never not be a right-to-work state, save for another change to the constitution. Terry McAuliffe, the state’s Democratic governor, would not be able to veto it.
Those who pushed the amendment claimed it would make Virginia more attractive to employers, who wouldn’t have to worry about the state repealing its right-to-work law (if they ever worried about that in the first place). Typifying this argument, the head of the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce claimed that cementing right-to-work in the constitution would make Virginia a more “competitive and attractive place for business and job creation.”
Backers of the amendment may have feared that, as Virginia creeps bluer and bluer, a Democratic-controlled statehouse could one day repeal its right-to-work status. But that seems unlikely. When he was Virginia’s Democratic governor, even Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s running mate, said the state’s right-to-work law was something he “strongly supports.” And once a state goes right-to-work, it tends to stay that way ― especially when it’s the long-standing tradition in a place like Virginia. Besides, right-to-work laws are now more popular than ever, to the great detriment of unions.
It used to be that right-to-work laws were confined to the South and parts of the West. But in the past four and a half years, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and West Virginia have all gone right-to-work. After West Virginia passed its law in February, a majority of states ― 26 ― were right-to-work for the first time ever, making it the norm in the U.S.
The fight in Virginia says a lot about where organized labor finds itself right now. With the help of state Republicans, business groups around the country have been pushing laws that restrict collective bargaining and deplete the labor movement. A case in point is Wisconsin, where in 2011, Republicans stripped most public sector workers of their bargaining rights. When these conservative groups succeed, unions lose out. When they fail, unions don’t make any gains.
In the case of Virginia, unions there were able to mobilize and defeat a constitutional amendment that posed a threat to them. But all their victory accomplished was preserving the status quo.