Photo of West Virginia’s state capitol provided under a Flickr/Creative Commons agreement by GovJustice.
In a victory for West Virginia’s working people, a circuit court judge recently ruled that parts of the state’s 2016 right-to-work law are unconstitutional.  

West Virginia’s working people scored a big win on Wednesday when Kanawha County Circuit Court Judge Jennifer Bailey ruled unconstitutional parts of the state’s 2016 right-to-work law.

"Judge Bailey was right-on with her ruling,” said West Virginia AFL-CIO President Josh Sword in a statement. “She made it very clear that this bill violates the West Virginia constitutional rights of unions and individuals with regard to association, property and liberty.”

So-called right-to-work laws allow employees covered by a collectively bargained contract to enjoy the contract’s benefits without paying their fair share to cover its costs.

Getting such a law passed in West Virginia in 2016 was a top goal of the state’s Republican-led legislature, which jammed through the measure and then aggressively overrode a veto by then-Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat.

“It was a bad law from the beginning,” said Wheeling, W.Va., Local 141 Business Manager Thomas Conner. “A lot of our IBEW guys spent time down at the state Capitol to lobby against it.”

Four months later, six IBEW locals with jurisdiction in West Virginia sued, along with the state’s Building & Construction Trades Council and AFL-CIO chapter, the United Mine Workers of America, and a Teamsters local in Charleston. They argued that the law’s requirement to represent free-riders was an illegal taking of property.

Bailey issued a temporary injunction that summer, a move that temporarily kept the law from being enforced. Her injunction was overturned a year later, though, by West Virginia’s Supreme Court.

In Wednesday’s ruling, Bailey wrote that under the existing law, the fees collected by unions “essentially function as taxes on collective bargaining members for the costs of ‘legislative’ and governmental services.

“The new law will require unions and union officials to work, to supply their valuable expertise and to provide expensive services for nothing,” she wrote. “That is, in a word, arbitrary.”

Bailey’s ruling was a partial victory, though, because it only applied to pieces of the right-to-work law. The office of the state’s attorney general indicated that it was reviewing the judge’s ruling.

Prospects for right-to-work’s outright repeal in West Virginia — either through the Legislature or through the courts — are “an uphill battle,” Conner said. “We’re vastly outnumbered in the Legislature and the Supreme Court.”

West Virginia’s governor, half of its Senate, its entire House of Delegates and three of its five Supreme Court justices are up for election in 2020, so working families will have an opportunity to weigh in on the right-to-work issue.

Meanwhile, 27 states now have the anti-union laws on the books. Missouri became the 28th in February 2016, but in a referendum last summer, Show-Me State voters repealed right-to-work there with an overwhelming 67 percent of the vote.