Why Virginia Is Organized Labor’s Next Big Battleground

Unions are betting big on candidates in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. The stakes are high.
Virginia state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, left, former state Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe are among the Democratic candidates running for governor.
Virginia state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, left, former state Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe are among the Democratic candidates running for governor.
Getty Images

The backlash to then-President Donald Trump helped turn Virginia from a purple state to a solid blue state, bringing state government under unified Democratic control for the first time since the early 1990s.

Now, with key statewide elections just months away, labor unions are hoping Virginia can make a second transition: from a lightly regulated playground for big business to a union stronghold in the image of neighboring Maryland.

“I remember when they used to call Virginia a purple state,” said Raymond Jackson, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which represents train and bus workers in greater Washington. “This election is an opportunity for us to even get some of the Democrats in Virginia to change their mind and thinking.”

Historically, Virginia has been a hotbed of anti-union politics. In 1947, the state became one of the first in the country to adopt a “right-to-work law,” prohibiting unions from compelling workers they represent from paying dues. (The laws are widely regarded as a way to deprive unions of financial resources by allowing workers covered by collective bargaining agreements to opt out of union dues.)

As a new generation of Democrats has taken power in recent years though, the state’s approach to unions has begun to change. In March, Virginia’s Democratic-run state government enacted a law granting localities the freedom to bargain collectively with public-sector workers. The bill undid a statewide ban on the practice that a Democratic governor signed into law in 1993.

But Virginia’s labor movement is still hemmed in by decades of anti-union policies. Even under Democratic control, the legislature refused to legalize collective bargaining for state employees and make collective bargaining the default for local government rather than merely permitting localities to opt into it.

Union workers Johnathan Brown, a member of IBEW Local 26, left, and Guy Martin meet before going out to canvas Virginia neighborhoods to get out the vote in Annandale, Virginia, on Oct. 18, 2016.
Union workers Johnathan Brown, a member of IBEW Local 26, left, and Guy Martin meet before going out to canvas Virginia neighborhoods to get out the vote in Annandale, Virginia, on Oct. 18, 2016.
Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post via Getty Images

And shortly after Democrats flipped the state Senate in 2019, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam made it clear that he would not support repealing the state’s right-to-work law ― the ultimate symbol of hostility to organized labor. The Democratic-controlled Virginia House of Delegates went on to vote against allowing a floor vote on repeal, 83-13.

It’s no wonder then that Virginia lags far behind its neighbors in union membership. Though 10.7% of West Virginia’s workforce and 13.1% of Maryland’s workforce are unionized, the rate of union membership in Virginia is just 4.4%.

If organized labor is to build on its gains in Virginia, it will need Democrats to maintain ― and possibly expand ― their hold on state government.

Notwithstanding Virginia’s now solidly Democratic voting record in the presidential elections, holding the governor’s mansion this November could be harder than it looks. In keeping with the political disadvantage that a president’s party suffers in off-year elections, Republicans have taken over Virginia’s governorship during the first terms of the two previous Democratic presidents.

Five candidates are vying for the Democratic nod: former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, Del. Lee Carter, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy. A win for either McClellan or Carroll Foy would give the nation its first Black female governor.

Labor unions, eager both for a Democratic victory and to press their advantage within the party, are divided on how to proceed ahead of the Democratic gubernatorial primary on June 8.

Some of the state’s largest unions, including the Virginia Education Association, the Communication Workers of America, the Service Employees International Union and the United Steel Workers, have not yet endorsed in the primary.

At the same time, some ordinarily cautious unions are throwing their weight ― and, in some cases, their cash ― behind Carroll Foy, a public defender trying to carve out the progressive lane. Unlike McAuliffe, McClellan and Fairfax, Carroll Foy has promised to fight for the repeal of the state’s right-to-work law.

Jackson’s ATU Local 689 announced its endorsement of Carroll Foy on Feb. 17. He told HuffPost that the union was especially appreciative of her support for bus garage workers on strike in Lorton, Virginia. The union plans to mobilize upwards of 300 members to volunteer on Carroll Foy’s behalf.

“Jennifer Carroll Foy has one of the strongest backgrounds in support of labor in the state of Virginia,” Jackson said. “I’d put her record up against almost anybody’s.”

The ATU’s endorsement is notable because it is part of an international union that endorsed presidential candidate Joe Biden before the 2020 Iowa caucuses. The union, which backed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in 2016, cited Biden’s electability to explain its switch from Sanders to Biden. Blessing Carroll Foy’s bid could signal a similar degree of confidence in her ability to prevail against a Republican.

In addition, Steamfitters Union Local 602, Teamsters Joint Council 55, Teamsters Local 730, American Federation of Government Employees Local 252, IBEW Local 26, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and International Union of Painters and Allied Trades District Council 51 have all endorsed Carroll Foy.

Thanks to Virginia’s lack of campaign contribution limits, the IBEW and various carpenters union organs have jointly contributed $410,000 to Carroll Foy since she announced her campaign. McAuliffe, by contrast, has brought in just $145,000 from unions this cycle, though he enjoys a massive overall fundraising edge.

Jason Wheeler, a central Virginia member of the Carpenters and a representative for the union’s regional council, said that in just under two terms in the state House, Carroll Foy had been a reliable partner for the union. She championed the building trade unions’ apprenticeship programs; sponsored a law enabling unions to compete for state and local government contracts on a more level playing field; sponsored a law requiring fair pay and benefits on government-sponsored building contracts; and inspired union officials with her own stories of working minimum-wage jobs.

“The stakes are high for the working class in Virginia,” Wheeler said. “It is the difference between having a candidate like Jennifer Carroll Foy, who has a proven track record of supporting labor, or just another do-nothing Virginia insider who believes in big business over people.”

Nationwide, the building trade unions tend to be more male, less racially diverse and more politically conservative than organized labor as a whole.

In light of Virginia’s historically bipartisan hostility to union priorities, though, some construction unions in the Old Dominion State have proved to be more open to progressive Democrats. For example, both IBEW and the Carpenters endorsed Tom Perriello’s unsuccessful bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2017.

Carroll Foy has some competition for the progressive mantle.

Lee Carter, a socialist running for Virginia governor, is a working-class candidate.
Lee Carter, a socialist running for Virginia governor, is a working-class candidate.

Carter, a self-described democratic socialist, introduced a right-to-work repeal bill in 2019 that none of his state House colleagues, including Carroll Foy, co-sponsored. (Carroll Foy and 14 other state House Democrats co-sponsored Carter’s bill the following year.)

Alone among his competitors, Carter, a high-school-educated electric repair technician, remains a member of the working class. When the Virginia legislature is not in session, he has driven for Lyft to make money, joining a May 2019 strike for better pay and working conditions.

Carter, who is widely viewed as a long-shot candidate, has not picked up any union endorsements in the primary.

Still, he insists that his pro-labor credentials are second to none.

“The rest of the field is certainly happy to cash checks for labor, but when push comes to shove and it comes time to actually take a hit for labor, for doing what’s right, I’m the only one with a track record of doing that,” Carter said, touting his early support for right-to-work repeal.

At least four unions ― AFSCME, LIUNA, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association ― have contributed to the campaign of former Gov. McAuliffe, placing their bets on the only contender in the race who has already won the governorship.

McAuliffe has promised to strengthen and expand public-sector collective bargaining, speed up the transition to a $15 minimum wage and adopt a system of paid sick days and family leave.

“Terry is running for governor to create a stronger, more equitable Commonwealth that lifts up all Virginians,” McAuliffe campaign spokesperson Jake Rubenstein said in a statement. “As Governor, Terry would take big, bold actions to invest in Virginia workers.”

McAuliffe does carry the weight of past proclamations of support for Virginia’s right-to-work law.

As a gubernatorial candidate in 2013, he promised business groups and reporters that he would veto any repeal of the right-to-work law.

“We are a great right-to-work state. We should never change that,” he told the National Federation of Independent Business. “It helps us do what we need to do to grow our businesses here in Virginia.”

Asked by HuffPost whether McAuliffe would veto a bill repealing right-to-work if the legislature passed it and it came to his desk, the campaign said it would not comment on that hypothetical situation.

Finally, McClellan boasts a pro-worker voting record of her own. In 2020 alone, she was chief co-sponsor of the union-backed bill granting public-sector workers collective bargaining rights and a bill ending the state’s exemption of domestic work from the minimum wage. Both bills became law, but the public-sector bargaining bill was watered down from the version McClellan proposed.

This year, McClellan introduced a domestic workers’ bill of rights, which would ensure that domestic workers are eligible for workers’ compensation and other key protections. The bill has passed the state legislature.

McClellan also supports expediting the $15 minimum wage’s adoption and expanding public-sector collective bargaining rights. She told HuffPost that she would not veto a bill repealing right-to-work if it came to her desk.

“I believe union membership is a personal choice, and that employers should not be able to condition employment on union membership or non-membership,” she said in a statement. “However any employees that benefit from a collective bargaining agreement or union representation, for example through the grievance process, should have to contribute towards the union’s costs to obtain those benefits.”

McClellan’s commitment to expanding labor rights has helped her win the endorsements of the New Virginia Majority, a union-backed progressive group, and Care in Action, the political arm of the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

“Jennifer McClellan is a champion for domestic workers, women and the people of Virginia,” Alexsis Rodgers, Care in Action’s Virginia state director, said in a statement.

The veteran state lawmaker is not without her critics in organized labor, however.

Although the Virginia AFL-CIO, the state’s biggest federation of labor unions, has repeatedly given McClellan a perfect voting score on its legislative priorities, the federation declined to endorse her for reelection in 2019.

McClellan lost the endorsement vote because some unions objected to her refusal to affirm her support for repealing the right-to-work law in a candidate questionnaire, according to union officials familiar with the vote. (The Virginia AFL-CIO declined to comment on the vote, citing its ethical obligation to maintain the secrecy of its executive board meeting.)

But she also had detractors wary of her work as a regulatory attorney for Verizon, including during a 2016 strike when the company was at war with its blue-collar labor unions.

Part of the conflict between Verizon and its unions was a fight over whether Verizon had upheld its obligations as a public utility to maintain its telecommunications infrastructure. Though McClellan is based in Richmond, in May 2016, Verizon petitioned to grant her admission to a pre-hearing conference before the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission when Verizon was enmeshed in a legal dispute with the Communication Workers of America. (The hearing was subsequently canceled.)

McClellan sought admission to the court only because the attorney who would normally handle it was not going to be available, and she never ended up working on the case, according to McClellan’s campaign.

“Regarding this year’s election cycle, it is clear that we are fortunate to have a great pool to pull from,” Doris Crouse-Mays, president of the Virginia AFL-CIO, said in a statement. “The Virginia AFL-CIO is confident that whoever wins the Democratic nomination and whoever may become Governor, they will sign a bill repealing Right to Work when it is placed on their desk and will be a true champion for workers and their families here in Virginia.”

Regardless of what Virginia’s fledgling unions have to say about the race, the latest public polling indicates that McAuliffe is the front-runner.

Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax has not made a commitment to fight for the repeal of the right-to-work law.
Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax has not made a commitment to fight for the repeal of the right-to-work law.
Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images

A third of Democratic primary voters plan to vote for McAuliffe, 6% each for Carroll Foy and McClellan, 5% for Carter and 4% for Fairfax, according to a YouGov poll that came out earlier this month. Nearly half of Democratic voters remain undecided, though, the poll found.

A more recent poll conducted by Christopher Newport University found McAuliffe with 26%, Fairfax with 12%, Carroll Foy and McClellan with 4%, Carter with 1%, and half of Democratic voters undecided.

At its core, the divide among labor unions over how to approach the gubernatorial primary reflects different strategies for how to advance organized labor’s status in the state.

Many unions have prioritized the legalization and expansion of public-sector bargaining, the enabling of project labor agreements that minimize the competitive disadvantage of using union construction labor, and even the construction of natural gas pipelines that provide short-term union jobs.

If repealing the right-to-work law is likely to fail in the Democratic legislature anyway, these advocates of caution argue, why risk making it a litmus test for Democratic candidates?

“I don’t know that there is a coherent strategy on right-to-work repeal,” said a Virginia Democrat who is familiar with the unions’ thinking and requested anonymity to speak freely. “It’s more than a candidate for governor.”

Leslie Byrne, the 2005 Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, was the last major statewide candidate in Virginia openly opposed to the state’s right-to-work law. In a year when Democrat Tim Kaine easily won the governorship, she lost to the Republican nominee by less than a percentage point.

Though Virginia’s electorate has gotten more liberal since then, a significant portion of Democrats’ gains in the state have been in the upper-middle-class suburbs of Washington and Richmond, where voters’ views on union rights may be less progressive than on other issues.

“Independents really like ‘right to work,’” said a Virginia-based Republican operative who requested anonymity for professional reasons. “The Democrats, I would imagine, are saying, ‘Look, we can do it, but we can’t get elected with this. So just shut up about it and we’ll go to work on it once we’re in.’”

Ben Tribbett, a Democratic consultant, argued that, regardless of whom they nominate, Democrats face steep odds in a governor’s race in the first term of a Democratic president.

Given that reality, and the potentially transformative effect of a candidate winning on a platform of repealing right-to-work, nominating a progressive champion of union rights might be worth the risk, he ventured.

“If you saw somebody be successful with that message and win, it would perk Democrats up in the Assembly” and make them more receptive to the idea of repeal, Tribbett predicted.

And if Democrats went on to make Virginia the first state in the nation to undo an existing right-to-work law, providing a financial windfall for unions and likely generating thousands of new union members, it could have positive political reverberations for Democrats for generations to come. In pro-union states, unions are generally a steadier source of campaign cash for Democrats and a more powerful vehicle for mobilizing working-class voters behind liberal policies.

“Whether it’s African Americans or Latinos or other [minority] groups ― those groups in coalition with organized labor is where you see [Democratic] success happen,” Tribbett said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized McAuliffe as the only candidate to have won statewide office.

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