The history of West Virginia is intertwined with the history of the union movement. Some of the biggest labor battles in American history took place in the hills and mines of the Mountaineer State.
“West Virginia is a blue-collar, working-class state where unions are still important to the people,” said Fourth District International Representative Steve Crum.
But radical Republicans in the state legislature, emboldened by strong showings in the 2014 midterm election, are coming after workers’ rights, introducing two anti-labor bills last month.
The first would repeal the state’s prevailing wage law, which requires contractors on publically funded projects to pay a fair wage.
A second bill, introduced by state Sen. Mitch Carmichael, would have West Virginia become the latest right-to-work-for-less state.
The GOP took control of the legislature for the first time in eight decades in January. Many Republican legislators have ties with the American Legislative Exchange Council, an ultra-right wing policy organization that prepares pro-big business model bills for lawmakers.
ALEC has been particularly active in West Virginia, says Brookings Institute researcher Molly Jackman, where legislators introduced 10 ALEC bills in 2013 alone.
In fact, Carmichael’s bill bears a strong similarity to ALEC’s model right-to-work legislation.
The building trades and many contractors are pushing back against anti-prevailing wage legislation, writing letters and talking with delegates in Charleston.
They say that repealing prevailing wage would drive down standards in the construction industry, forcing local contractors to compete against low-wage, out-of-state companies.
“Rather than save taxpayers money, repeal of the law will cost taxpayers in lost revenue and wages,” said K.T. Carfaga, president and chief executive of Jarvis, Downing and Emch Inc., a Wheeling-based contracting firm.
According to a study prepared for the Kansas state senate, construction wages dropped by 10 percent after the repeal of that state’s prevailing wage law. The report also showed a dramatic drop in apprenticeship training and a rise in on-the-job injuries.
And it found, the drop in workers’ wages failed to translate into increased savings for contractors and taxpayers.
Author Peter Philips wrote:
“With lower wages and benefits, experienced and skilled workers eventually migrated out of the industry or retired. With a 38 percent fall-off in apprenticeship training, skilled and experienced older workers were replaced by younger, less -experienced, less-trained workers. Thus, the promised construction savings were based on a false premise – that wage rates could be cut without effecting productivity, and collective bargaining could be terminated without effecting training. Both these premises proved false.”
Steve Crum, who serves as the IBEW political coordinator for the state, says that the bill isn’t just bad for workers, but bad for business.
“A lot of contractors are going to their local Chamber of Commerce to get them behind protecting prevailing wage,” he said.
Gov. Earl Tomblin, a Democrat, has wavered in past public statements on whether he would veto either bill.
“We are prepared for the worst,” said state AFL-CIO President Kenny Perdue. “With the many real problems we have in our state, we hope we can convince enough legislators that so called right-to-work is not worth the effort.”
Photo: Flickr User Joseph