With every vote counted in 2017, pro-worker lawmakers in Virginia were one botched ballot away from shared control of the House of Delegates.
|Gathered for a labor walk, Norfolk Local 80 members are joined by House District 64 candidate Michele Joyce, front row left, and Senate District 8 candidate Missy Cotter Smasal, front row middle. Business Manager Dennis Floyd is directly behind her, back row middle. Cotter Smasal is challenging an incumbent senator whose anti-worker track record includes bills hostile to the building trades.
Through labor walks, phone banks and other grassroots campaigning, they had nearly obliterated a 32-seat deficit, an imbalance that sucked the oxygen out of bills tackling workers’ rights, economic security, and job safety.
A series of twists and turns with the lone disputed ballot left the outcome to chance: an election officer drew the incumbent Republican’s name from a bowl.
“No one ever again can say, ‘My vote doesn’t count,’” said Jeff Rowe, business manager of Newport News Local 1340, home to the history-making House district.
It’s a powerful motivator as IBEW activists call and visit union homes in Virginia to get out the vote Nov. 5. All seats at the Capitol in Richmond – 100 in the House and 40 in the Senate – are up for grabs.
Virginia is one of four states with legislative elections in the odd years between the presidential and midterm elections. The others are New Jersey, Louisiana and Mississippi.
Picking up just two seats in each chamber would put Democrats in control of the Virginia Statehouse for the first time since 1995 and mark the first union-friendly single-party control of the state government since 1993.
Unions would have their first shot in a quarter century at repealing right-to-work, opening the door to collective bargaining and greater economic and job security for tens of thousands of workers.
“Labor is pushing hard,” said Neil Gray, a Fourth District international representative and Virginia political director. “There’s no question that there is an optimism and sense of urgency, or opportunity, to take advantage of the situation.”
Coming so close to parity in the House in 2017 helped move the needle in some areas, such as Medicaid expansion. But for working people overall, “that one-seat difference might as well be a hundred seats,” Rowe said.
The IBEW and other unions are making that case to members, connecting the dots between legislative control and the bread-and-butter issues that affect their lives.
“We have a real chance to make some very important changes,” Rowe said. “Real progress on prevailing wage, on wage theft, on getting rid of the Comstock rule that prohibited project labor agreements on state-funded projects, a real chance to do something about the minimum wage and finally have the opportunity to address right-to-work.”
Victory also means slamming the brakes on bad legislation, such as repeated attempts to devalue the title “journeyman” by weakening training and licensing standards, and reducing the ratio of journeymen to apprentices on construction sites.
Such a law would siphon work away from highly skilled IBEW electricians and their building trades brothers and sisters while putting workers – and ultimately the public – at risk.
During a hearing earlier this year, bill sponsor and Norfolk Sen. Bill DeSteph infamously dismissed those safety concerns.
“Unfortunately, in the construction fields there’s accidents all the time… accidents with seasoned individuals, accidents with junior individuals,” he said. “I believe this is a good right-to-work bill.”
“It’s mind-blowing that somebody would say something like that,” said Dennis Floyd, business manager of Norfolk Local 80 in DeSteph’s district. “He made it clear how little he thinks of construction workers, whether they’re union members or not.”
The senator’s words illustrate how high the stakes are Nov. 5.
“To accept accidents or fatalities on construction projects as a fact of life is unacceptable,” Rowe said. “Any public official who promotes their legislation with that kind of rationale is willing to put workers’ safety at risk so that greedy and unscrupulous contractors can be more profitable.”
The state AFL-CIO and member unions have been aggressive in questioning candidates, from issues vital to the building trades to the broader fights against right-to-work and for extending bargaining rights to public employees.
|Local 1340 volunteers prepare a mailer in support of worker-friendly candidates on the Nov. 5 ballot.
“The endorsement process is not a rubber stamp,” Gray said. “Candidates are asked tough questions and pressed by local union leaders about what legislative action they will take to improve the lives of working families.”
The AFL-CIO reaches out to all candidates regardless of party, he said, but few, if any, Republicans respond.
“Organized labor tries to work with both parties, but it is impossible to ignore hard facts and reality,” Gray said. “The party that has controlled the General Assembly for the last 20 years has introduced bills and passed laws that have eroded the rights of working families in Virginia.”
In fact, an annual Oxfam report analyzing organizing rights, wage policies, employee protections, mandatory sick leave and more ranks Virginia dead last – the worst state in the country for workers.
Floyd said he’s had members return from projects in union-friendly New York and New Jersey asking “Why don’t we have a contract like that? Why don’t we have that strength?”
Too many people, even union members, don’t understand what the fraudulently named right-to-work laws really are, he said.
“I tell them that you don’t take your car to the garage and say to the mechanic, ‘I don’t feel like paying for your service.’ But that’s what right-to-work is– people having all the rights and benefits of being a union member without paying for it. You can see the lightbulb go on.”
He knows that workers’ issues aren’t the top priority for all members when deciding how to vote, but he argues that they should be.
“I don’t understand how the ability to work and to provide for your family is not number-one,” Floyd said. “Let’s focus on the things that really do affect our daily lives.”
When it comes to confusion about right-to-work and other battles unions fight, it’s not just voters who’ve lacked information. Charles Skelly, business manager of Richmond Local 666 said that over the years many candidates seeking labor’s endorsement have displayed a shallow grasp of the issues.
But he’s been pleasantly surprised this year to hear labor-friendly candidates speaking about workers’ rights in a substantive way.
“I feel like at the state level that the candidates are saying the right things, and that they mean it – they understand the issues, finally,” he said. “They come to speak at our labor walks and they can answer questions in detail about their support for things like PLAs and prevailing wage.”
Like his fellow business managers, he’s been reaching out to members through mailers, calls and meetings, and encouraging people to volunteer to make calls and knock on doors. “I’ve told them pretty directly that we have a chance to change things for our jurisdiction, to move the ball forward if we can even get a couple of these things through.”
He reinforced that in a recent letter to members, saying that “many candidates running this year are actively promoting ideas that we have wanted for years.”
“In the last session of the General Assembly there were some fantastic bills introduced that were killed in lopsided committee votes, never brought up for a full vote,” he continued. “Now is the time to show the strength of solidarity and knock down the last barriers to real change. Stand with us at the polls Nov. 5 and elect our endorsed candidates.”
For Virginia voters who will be out of the area Nov. 5 or otherwise unable to cast ballots on Election Day, early absentee in-person voting is underway at select county polling places through Saturday Nov. 2. A quick form on the state Department of Elections website checks your registration status and provides phone, email and website information to contact your county registrar for area locations and hours.