Plenty of obstacles remain, but the IBEW’s and other unions’ lawsuit against West Virginia officials over their newly-passed right-to-work law is off to a good start.

West Virginia Senate President Bill Cole hands a writing pen to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin during a ceremony. Cole was a co-sponsor of the state’s right-to-work law and is the Republican nominee in this November’s gubernatorial election. Tomblin, whose veto of the bill was overridden, is prohibited by state law from running for a third term. Photo provided under a Flickr/Creative Commons agreement by Gov. Tomblin’s office.  

Kanawha County Circuit Judge Jennifer Bailey issued an injunction that prevents the law from being enforced until the court makes a final decision. Bailey said there could be irreparable harm to unions and their members if it was enforced before the conclusion of legal proceedings.

IBEW leaders in West Virginia were optimistic they would get a favorable ruling at the circuit level, but they didn’t foresee such a quick one – or that Bailey would prohibit state officials from enforcing the law just yet. She issued her ruling during a preliminary hearing on Aug. 10.

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

“It could not have gone any better,” said Charleston Local 466 Business Manager Joe Samples, who attended the hearing. Charleston is the state capital and is in Kanawha County.

“I was surprised when she made a ruling that soon,” said Fourth District International Representative Steve Crum, who also was in the courtroom. “She evidently felt strongly enough that the possibility of irreparable harm was enough to warrant a temporary injunction.”

Bailey said she expects the case to be decided at the circuit level within 90 days. No matter her decision, it almost certainly will be appealed to the state Supreme Court.

“We can’t stand back and ignore this,” said Thomas L. Conner, business manager for Wheeling Local 141. “We have to fight. This is where we’re at and we’re ready for a long, drawn-out battle.”

Republicans control both houses of the West Virginia Legislature for the first time since 1930 and a right-to-work law was passed in January. Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin vetoed it, but state law required just a simple majority vote in each chamber to override it.

A handful of GOP members in the House voted to sustain the override, but it wasn’t enough and the legislature overrode Tomblin’s veto in February, making West Virginia the 26th state with a right-to-work law.

Six IBEW locals with jurisdiction in the Mountaineer State filed suit along with the State Building & Construction Trades Council, United Mine Workers of America and Teamsters Local 175 in Charleston. They argued the portion of the law that requires unions to represent employees who refuse to pay dues is an illegal taking of property.

The plaintiffs also argue the law only applies to collective bargaining involving public employee unions because the statute that defines the state as “any officer, board, branch, commission, department, division, bureau, committee, agency or authority or other instrumentality of the state of West Virginia” does not mention any private employer definitions.

The legal proceedings are playing out during an election year. The GOP has just an 18-16 advantage in the Senate and Democratic leaders are optimistic they may reclaim control of that chamber.

There’s also a close gubernatorial race between Republican nominee Bill Cole, the Senate president and a right-to-work proponent; and Democratic nominee Jim Justice, the owner of several coal mines and the legendary Greenbrier Resort. Republicans control the House by a 64-36 margin, and while Democrats expect to make some gains, a takeover seems unlikely.

“I think we all know the best case scenario is to eventually win both houses of the Legislature so we can overturn these things and repeal them,” Conner said.

Samples noted the Legislature did away with straight-ticket voting last year, meaning voters no longer can just punch “Democrat” or “Republican” at the top of ballot. They now must vote individually on each race. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is expected to do well in West Virginia, but Samples said he doesn’t think that will impact other races much because of the new law.

The IBEW already is making a difference. Local 141 members were among several labor groups that protested when Cole made an appearance in Wheeling on Aug. 11. He told the crowd “I am not anti-union, I am pro-worker,” according to the Wheeling Intelligencer.

Cole, who was a co-sponsor of the right-to-work law, also said he was not to blame if any of the protesting workers were unemployed. He has been a regular attendee at events put on by anti-union, far-right groups.

“It wasn’t me that caused them to be out of work,” he said. “It was the anti-business climate that created this.”

Conner said that while the GOP takeover of the Legislature was painful – it not only led to the right-to-work law, but also the repeal of prevailing wage laws in the state – there has been one benefit.

“It knocked us out of our complacency,” he said. “We had a Democratic legislature for 80-plus years. Now, people see the difference.”

Conner noted that some Republicans in the House are against the right-to-work law. IBEW locals in the state are working to elect both Democrat and Republican candidates who support working families, he said.

“We have some great friends out there,” he said. “Right now, they’re just outgunned.”

Prevailing wage laws require contractors doing business with governmental bodies to pay their workers at pre-determined levels. Crum hopes to stop ant-worker legislation right there.

“I think our locals have done a great job communicating to their members that Bill Cole was instrumental in right-to-work and repealing prevailing wage,” he said. “If feel very strongly that if he wins the governor’s race and the Republicans keep the statehouse, they’ll pass legislation prohibiting employers from deducting union dues.

“This is a perfect example of why politics matters.”

Photo provided under a Flickr/Creative Commons agreement by bobistraveling.