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November 2017

The Front Line: Politics & Jobs
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Court Gives Go-Ahead to W.Va. Right-to-Work

The IBEW and working families in West Virginia suffered a setback when the state's Supreme Court squashed an injunction that prohibited implementation of a right-to-work law and sent the case back to the circuit court level.

The law, which was passed after Republicans gained control of the both the state House and Senate going into the 2016 legislative session, went into effect after the Sept. 15 ruling.

"It was pretty devastating, especially the way the head justice wrote his opinion," Charleston Local 466 Business Manager Joe Samples said. "Basically, he laid out what side of the issue he's on."

Chief Justice Allen Loughery wrote that issuing the injunction was "not merely imprudent, but profoundly legally incorrect." Loughery noted the Taft-Hartley Act passed in 1947 allows states to prohibit compulsory union membership and 27 other states have passed right-to-work laws.

Then-Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin vetoed West Virginia's law in February 2016, but the House and Senate needed just a simple majority to override it and promptly did so. Four months later, six IBEW local unions with jurisdiction in the state joined with other labor organizations and filed suit, claiming it was an unconstitutional search-and-seizure because it forced labor unions to provide representation to members who do not pay dues.

Kanawha County Circuit Judge Jennifer Bailey issued a preliminary injunction in their favor in August 2016, ruling that the law could not be enforced until it made its way through the legal process.

It provided some hope for working families, but that was quashed by the state Supreme Court's ruling in September. Three of the five justices voted in the majority, one dissented and another dissented over part of the ruling, which is permitted under West Virginia law. Neither of the dissenting judges issued a written opinion.

"The wisdom, desirability, and fairness of a law are political questions to be resolved in the legislature," Justice Menis Ketchum wrote for the majority. "Those decisions may only be challenged in the court of public opinion and the ballot box, not before the judiciary."

Right-to-work laws allow employees to opt out of paying union membership dues, even when they enjoy the benefits of a union contract. They undercut wages and benefits throughout a state, including union and nonunion workers alike. Conservative groups use them to punish unions and drain them of resources. Support of them is rarely through popularly-driven, grassroots efforts but by special interest "astroturf" groups on behalf of business interests.

But even with the setback, the case is expected to continue. John S. Sword, the West Virginia AFL-CIO's president, noted the court only overturned Bailey's initial preliminary injunction.

"All parties in this case expect to be back before the state Supreme Court after Judge Bailey's final order on our lawsuit is issued," Sword told the Charleston Gazette-Mail. "We look forward to continuing the debate on the merits of our arguments before the justices at that time."

IBEW local unions serving as co-plaintiffs are Wheeling Local 141, Huntington Local 317, Charleston Local 466, Clarksburg Local 596, Parkersburg Local 968 and Cumberland, Md., Local 307, which has jurisdiction in parts of West Virginia. Teamsters Local 175 in Charleston, the United Mine Workers and the West Virginia State Building & Construction Trades also are co-plaintiffs.

In other parts of the country, Missouri voters are fighting back against a right-to-work law passed earlier this year. They collected enough signatures from registered voters to force a statewide referendum on the law in November 2018. The law will not be enforced before the election.


West Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Allen Loughery.

Photo provided through a Flickr/Creative Commons agreement by the West Virginia Judiciary.


A demonstration against right-to-work laws in Wisconsin, which also has passed one in recent years.

Flickr/Creative commons photo by Joe Brusky

Prevailing Wage Survives Anti‑Labor Attacks in Congress

As members of the House of Representatives scrambled in September to pass an appropriations bill to keep the government running, Rep. Steve King of Iowa and others tried repeatedly to attach amendments that would gut the Davis-Bacon Act, a long-standing law that assures construction workers a living wage.

The act, which dates back to the Depression, requires contractors working on federally-funded projects to pay a prevailing wage. Research shows that prevailing wage standards lead to more local jobs, less poverty and safer, more efficient worksites — with no significant impact on project costs.

"Weakening Davis-Bacon only serves to hurt working families," said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. "I'm glad that it was a bipartisan vote that defeated his amendments."

Every Democrat and 54 Republicans voted against these attempts.

"I'm heartened to see a united Democratic caucus, joined by colleagues from the other side of the aisle, vote for good wages for their constituents," Stephenson said. "Our skilled craftsmen and women don't just build roads and schools, they vote too. And they'll remember who stood up for their interests."

The IBEW sent a letter, signed by President Stephenson, to the House, urging representatives to oppose the amendments, as well as any that would eliminate project labor agreements. PLAs set the terms of employment on construction projects and are often credited with helping projects come in on-time and under budget. Only the Davis-Bacon amendments came up for a vote.

In January, King introduced a stand-alone bill to ban Davis-Bacon. He also opposes PLAs and numerous bills to make it harder for working people to organize. In February, he introduced a bill to enact right-to-work nationally.


On Capitol Hill, a united Democratic caucus joined by more than 50 Republicans thwarted an attempt to get rid of the Davis-Bacon Act while members of Congress voted on an appropriations bill in September.

Photo credit: Ron Cogswell via Flickr