With Democrats taking control of both chambers of the General Assembly for the first time in a generation, there was a lot of hope they’d pass laws that would benefit workers. Not even a month after the election, however, Gov. Ralph Northam has come out in opposition to repealing Virginia’s right to work laws.
Right to work laws make it illegal for businesses to make joining a union a condition of employment. The measures are often implemented in order to curry favor with the corporate world as they’re designed to make labor unions week by making it harder for them to grow and reduces their leverage with employers.
Despite the pro-worker sounding name, studies have shown workers actually suffer in right to work states. Wages in right to work states are 3.2% lower than in their pro-union counterparts and this isn’t just for unionized workers. Even people in non-unionized workplaces usually receive higher pay and good benefits in pro-union states.
Fortunately, there are several members of the General Assembly who are standing up for workers and support repealing right to work. Lee Carter from Prince William County has introduced legislation to repeal right to work in the past and has said he’ll introduce it again for the upcoming bill. He even made it clear his efforts won’t be dependent on whether or not he can receive support from the governor’s mansion.
“Opposition doesn’t stop me from putting in good bills. And repealing right to work is a good bill,” Carter tweeted yesterday. “I’m gonna introduce it, and I’m gonna fight like hell to get it to the Governor’s desk. And if he vetoes it, he’ll be the one who has to own that.”
Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy, who also represents parts of Prince William County, has also publicly said she supports repealing right to work. Her reasoning was that Virginia needs to strike a balance between being good for business and good for workers. According to her, other states have proven there’s a way to do just that without having right to work on the books.
It’s also worth noting that labor unions are a core constituency group for the Democratic Party. Many of their members are active volunteers for Democrats and constantly show up at rallies and participate in voter engagement activities. Throughout the 2019 campaigns, for instance, SEIU and other unions had members all over Northern Virginia supporting candidates in their GOTV efforts in the lead up to Election Day. This was huge as local campaigns often don’t have the money to buy tons of TV air time and therefore have to rely on grassroots political activity that unions can help provide.
With that in mind, it seems rather odd for Northam to be expressing direct opposition to one of the labor community’s top priorities. He could have very easily used language that highlighted how the business community would benefit from loyal workers who have more job security, quality benefits, and higher pay, but he instead implied repealing right to work would be horrible for business (which simply isn’t the case).
This hasn’t been lost on folks in labor who were quick to express their disappointment in Northam’s remarks. They also highlighted how the same organizing power they used in the lead up to the election can also be used to help rally support for their legislative priorities.
“It was unions phonebanking and knocking doors to flip the house,” Stacey Shorter, a local leader in AFGE, said on Twitter after news broke of Northam’s statement.”We have the power we just need to use it. The power of the people is greater than the people in power.”
All that being said, Northam’s announcement shouldn’t come as too big of a surprise since he’s known as a corporate Democrat. During the 2017 gubernatorial primary, for instance, he told labor union representatives that he supported right to work laws, but never said whether he’d veto legislation that repealed it. His PAC also has a lot of corporate donors, which helps to illustrate his coziness with the corporate community.
It was therefore already known that the governor wouldn’t be leading the charge for repeal, but his choice of rhetoric is what has many of his allies disappointed. The language he used suggests he won’t simply let others work on repeal and might actually work against the efforts. This is cause for concern and is why many progressives were quick to express their opposition to Northam’s announcement.