Virginia was one of the first states to enact a right-to-work law, doing so in 1947 soon after the federal passage of the Taft-Hartley Act. It hasn’t been seriously challenged since.

That apparently isn’t good enough for the Republican-controlled state Legislature.

Both the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates approved a resolution on Feb. 2 that puts a measure on the November ballot that would make right-to-work a permanent part of the state constitution.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe speaks to supporters. Some labor leaders believe the state legislature’s attempt to make right-to-work part of the Virginia constitution is because of unions’ help in getting McAuliffe elected.
Photo provided by the McAuliffe Campaign under a Flickr/Creative Commons agreement.

Passage would make it much more difficult to make any changes to the right-to-work law, including veto power by the governor. Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe has been a supporter of unions and working people. He completes his first and only term in January 2018 as state law prohibits him from seeking re-election.

The American Legislative Affairs Council, which includes companies and legislators from across the country, has made it a priority to implement – or strengthen, in the case of Virginia – right-to-work laws in every state. ALEC works in concert with groups like Americans for Prosperity, the main political advocacy group for the billionaire Koch Brothers.

Neil Gray, an international representative and IBEW’s Virginia political director, sees groups like ALEC at work in Virginia.

 “It’s a choreographed with the other states,” Gray said. “It’s designed to destroy the core of organized labor because that’s the one thing that’s limited the ability of those groups to do what they want.”

Dan Duncan, president of the Northern Virginia Central Labor Council, says it’s a move driven by political payback.

“The Republicans have control of the Virginia House and Senate and they want to rub the noses of labor in the dirt for their support in helping elect Terry McAuliffe governor,” said Duncan, a member of the Seafarers International Union and the Communications Workers of America. “It’s basically a situation where they’re saying, ‘We can do it and there’s nothing you can do to stop us.”

Added Newport News, Va., Local 1340 Business Manager Jeffrey S. Rowe: “It’s just ridiculous and inappropriate to put this in the state constitution. … It’s a cornerstone of the Republican platform to be anti-union. They may not come out and say that, but every chance they get, that’s the case.”

Nearby West Virginia passed right-to-work legislation during its current legislative session, overriding a gubernatorial veto to do so. It’s been narrowly pushed back in recent months in Missouri and Kentucky, but right-to-work opponents expect the battle to continue in both states.

Gray is trying to look at the Virginia situation as a positive in one sense: The ballot measure gives opponents of right-to-work a larger platform to show it hurts workers across the board, not just in unions. Most right-to-work states are near the bottom in quality-of life-indicators, including average wages for workers.

Virginia figures to join several other states in fighting back anti-family legislation after the legislature approved a measure that will ask voters in November to make right-to-work laws part of the state constitution.
Photo provided by Rick Smith under a Flickr/Creative Commons agreement.

“It’s not going to change how we operate today,” Gray said. “We’ve been living with it for so long. It’s just another opportunity for us to prove why right-to work is wrong for Virginia.”

Gray said the legislature has voted seven other times since right-to-work passed in 1947 against measures that would permanently add it to the constitution.

“We don’t change the constitution willy-nilly in the commonwealth,” House Minority Leader David J. Toscano, a Democrat, said during floor debate on the issue, the Washington Post reported.

Gray said the combination of outside interest groups and longtime House of Delegates Speaker William J. Howell making it a priority has raised this issue in importance. Gray said he has personally spoken to Howell about the issue and the speaker is upset that some unions have campaigned against him during his re-election bid.

Duncan said labor leaders in the Commonwealth will work hard to defeat the measure. He expects those measures to ramp up after the Virginia AFL-CIO convention in August. Rowe said Local 1340 continually tries to impress upon the public and elected officials why right-to-work harms working families. Putting the proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot would give those efforts more urgency, he said.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch, the newspaper in the state’s capital city, published a conservative columnist’s opinion story arguing against the amendment because right-to-work laws are an “improper governmental intrusion into worker-employer relations.”

Right-to-work laws allow employees to opt out of paying membership dues, even when they receive the benefits of a union contract, and they prohibit 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.

Congress overrode a veto by President Truman to pass the Taft-Hartley Act, which was designed in part to thwart the burgeoning labor movement after World War II and to rein in newly-enshrined labor laws passed in the 1930s. A clause in it allowed states to outlaw union shops – defined as those where union membership was required for a person to work for an employer. That led to a rise in so-called right-to-work laws.

“I personally think it was a little bit of a mistake by the Republicans to put it in a presidential year,” Gray said of the current initiative. “What it’s going to do is cause longer lines at voting precincts, which concerns me a great deal. But I see this as an opportunity to educate the public. We need to dedicate the necessary resources to do it.”