Two years of historic progress for workers’ rights and the building trades in Virginia hangs in the balance as voters go to the polls over the next two weeks to decide between proven labor-friendly leaders and a hostile slate of opposing candidates.
“I feel like we’ve gone from the bottom 10 states for workers to the top 10 in just two legislative sessions,” said Jeff Rowe, business manager of Newport News Local 1340 and president of the IBEW’s Virginia State Association.
Rowe pointed to a long-sought prevailing wage law that went into effect July 1, the repeal of a ban on project labor agreements, and new collective bargaining rights for public employees, among a wealth of other advances for workers and working families since Virginia’s 2019 statehouse elections.
“It can’t be understated,” he said. “The progress has been monumental. But as quick as those laws were passed and signed, they can be taken away just as quickly.”
Early in-person and mail voting have been underway in Virginia since mid-September for the Nov. 2 election, and more early voting centers open this week. Races for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and all 100 seats in the House of Delegates are on the line.
Polls open Saturday, Oct. 23, in New Jersey, where a similar ballot includes all 80 Assembly seats and all 40 in the Senate.
Virginia and New Jersey are the only two states that hold legislative elections in the odd-numbered years between federal elections. This year, they are also the only states with governors’ races.
Both are also blue trifectas, with pro-worker governors and like-minded majorities in the House and Senate.
The margins are nearly supermajorities in New Jersey where incumbent Gov. Phil Murphy — who has racked up a long list of accomplishments for workers in his first term — continued to hold a double-digit lead over his challenger in early September.
The situation is more precarious in Virginia. The House Democrats who won prevailing wage and other reforms hold the chamber by just five seats, 55-45.
“Every vote counts at the polls, and every vote counts in Richmond, because there are a lot of pieces of pro-worker legislation that only make it out of committee by one vote,” Rowe said.
Through get-out-the-vote activities, mailers, and phone banks, Local 1340 and others in Virginia are determined to hold onto every seat — if not gain some — and to keep the executive branch worker-friendly by electing former Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
Virginia governors can’t run for consecutive terms, but they can run again. McAuliffe served from 2013 to 2017, with bipartisan approval ratings topping 60%. Polling has been tighter in his current race against private-equity billionaire Glenn Youngkin.
The Virginia State Association, comprising 19 IBEW locals, along with fellow unions and the state AFL-CIO have strongly endorsed McAuliffe.
“Youngkin has a long record in business of being 100 percent anti-worker, anti-union, anti-labor,” Rowe said. “We invited him for an interview with the association, and his campaign refused to respond. They didn’t even acknowledge us.”
McAuliffe is also a wealthy businessman and had had his skeptics during his 2013 run.
“I think that everybody was a little bit apprehensive the first time he ran, worried about him being a corporate Democrat,” Rowe said. “And I think that everybody was pleasantly surprised at the job that he did.”
On the campaign trail this time around, McAuliffe is more outspoken about protecting workers and has impressed the association in several virtual meetings.
“Terry McAuliffe has made a pledge to be the best governor for labor in the history of Virginia, and I think Youngkin may be the worst ever,” Rowe said. “The contrast couldn’t be more clear.”
New Jersey’s Murphy, another businessman-turned-governor, began signing pro-worker executive orders the day he took office in 2018, putting an end to eight years of animus from predecessor Chris Christie.
Together, Murphy and the strong Democratic majorities in the statehouse have a laudable track record on behalf of workers — from tax relief to a minimum wage hike, access to sick leave, and heavy investments in job training that include opening an Office of Apprenticeships in the state labor department.
Murphy also has solidly supported the IBEW’s legislative priorities for jobs, safety standards and prevailing-wage protections, said International Representative Wyatt Earp, who also serves as political coordinator for New Jersey and for the IBEW’s Third District.
There’s no better path to progress in any state than by electing union members to office, and New Jersey runs one of the country’s most aggressive programs to get them there.
The Legislature’s pro-union caucus includes four IBEW members, all of whom are running for re-election.
In the Assembly, they are Joseph Egan, New Brunswick Local 456 business manager; Wayne DeAngelo, president and assistant business manager at Trenton Local 269; and Eric Houghtaling, a member of Asbury Park Local 400. Vin Gopal, also from Local 400, serves in the Senate.
The ballot also features two Patterson Local 102 members, Joe Lukac and Christian Barranco, who are challenging incumbents in their Assembly districts.
While voting rights are perilously under assault in many red states, New Jersey and Virginia have been expanding access and making it easier than ever to vote.
In the spring, Murphy signed a law that requires counties to hold nine days of early, in-person voting through the Sunday before Election Day. Earp is hopeful it will boost voter turnout.
“It depends on the county size, but most voters should be no more than a 15-minute drive to an early-voting location,” he said.
In Virginia, early voting began Sept. 17 and expands to more in-person locations later this month, among other welcome reforms that went into effect this year.
“You can’t necessarily convince someone to vote a certain way,” Rowe said. “It comes down to turnout. The party that gets people more excited to vote is probably going to be the party that wins.”
While no candidate ever aligns perfectly with each voter’s priorities, Earp said that’s no excuse for not casting a ballot.
“It’s not a 100% game,” he said. “But we can support people who have a history of voting for our union’s interests, and it’s all on the table on Nov. 2.”