The opening day of the West Virginia legislative session usually is reserved for ceremony and the governor’s state of the state address. But this year, Republicans – who are the majority party in both the House of Delegates and Senate -- used it to introduce a right-to-work bill.

The message is clear. After falling short on similar legislation last year, they’re making passage of Senate Bill 1 a priority during the current 60-day session.

“We knew it was coming,” said Fourth District International Representative Steve Crum, the IBEW’s political coordinator in the state. “We just didn’t expect it the very first day.”

The IBEW was ready. Even with little notice, 3,000 working people, many of them IBEW members, showed up on Jan. 13, the session’s opening day, at the state Capitol in Charleston to protest the move. West Virginia union members continue to attend hearings and visit with legislators individually, urging them to vote no.

West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin likely will veto any right-to-work legislation, but the state House and Senate can override it with a simple majority.
Fllickr/Creative Commons licensed photo by the Office of the Governor.

Those actions will continue in the days ahead in what figures to be a close, intense battle. The West Virginia Senate passed the bill 17-16 along a straight party line vote on Jan. 21. It now heads to the House, where Republicans hold a 64-36 advantage, but Crum and others see more opportunities to convince GOP members to break ranks with their leadership.

The IBEW has been mobilizing members and allies on how to get supporters involved, including a day-long session with local registrars from across the state on Jan. 7.

“I’ve never seen our members as energized as they are now,” said Dave Efaw, a member and former business manager of Charleston Local 466 and now secretary/treasurer of the state’s building trades.

Right-to-work laws allow employees to opt out of paying membership dues, even when they receive the benefits of a union contract, and it prohibits companies from encouraging them to join a union. Such laws were confined primarily to the South and some Western states, but have been enacted during the last few years in Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin. Right-to-work states have some of the lowest wages and worst benefits for workers in the country.

Republican legislators also are proposing to repeal the state’s prevailing wage act, which they weakened last year, but much of the focus now is on Senate Bill 1. Right-to-work has been an ongoing battle for unions in recent years, but few states have had as many political dynamics in play as West Virginia.

Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is expected to veto any legislation. But unlike in many states, where a two-thirds majority of the state House and Senate is needed to override a veto, West Virginia law requires only a simple majority.

Plus, the makeup of the Senate is unclear. Republicans took control of it last year for the first time in more than 80 years when a member elected as a Democrat changed parties, giving the GOP an 18-16 majority.  

But that member resigned on Jan. 4 and Tomblin planned to appoint a Democrat to fill the seat, splitting the Senate equally between Democrats and Republicans. The state’s Republican attorney general asked the West Virginia Supreme Court for a stay to keep him from doing so and the court agreed, ordering Tomblin not to make any appointment until the case was decided. It heard arguments on Jan. 19. That seat remains open.

Crum said he is hoping for a quick resolution, but it’s hard to predict what the court will eventually do.

“You would think it would be a priority” to render a decision quickly, he said. “But anything is just a guess at this point.”

Democrats have a 3-2 majority on the court and one Republican justice has recused himself, so a Democrat may eventually be seated. But time is of the essence and explains why the Republicans are pushing right-to-work so aggressively at the start of the session. The Koch-brothers backed Americans for Prosperity have been lobbying heavily in the state in favor of the bill.

“There’s a lot of things going on here,” Crum said. “There’s a lot of balls in the air.”

The West Virginia University School of Business released a report – commissioned by statehouse Republicans – that argues passing right-to-work would lead to more job growth in the state, but the highly-regarded Economic Policy Institute in Washington countered with a report that pointed out several factual errors in the WVU study.

“We’ve never been recruiting a business who said no [to moving to the state] because of right-to-work,” West Virginia Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette told the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, according to the Charleston Gazette-Mail. “If you asked me for a list of companies that will not look at a state that is not right-to-work, I can’t produce that list.”

Added Democratic State Sen. Herb Snyder of Jefferson: “Lower wages and a loss of union membership are what will very likely happen. It happened in other states. It will happen here.”

Despite emotional testimony from union members, the judiciary committee voted 9-8 along party lines on Jan. 15 to send the bill to the full Senate.

Efaw said unions and working people are fighting some unfavorable trends in West Virginia, but he remains convinced they can win this fight. Anti-union forces are paying particularly close attention because it’s traditionally been viewed as a strong union state. It also would be the 26th state to adopt right-to-work.

“As energized as our members are,” he said, “I’m cautiously optimistic.”

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