Virginia GOP goes after unions with extreme measures

RICHMOND, Va. – The Virginia General Assembly has passed two new anti-union measures. Both will have very negative impacts on thousands of working people, and this will not be the end of the Republicans’ 2012 anti-labor campaign.

The first measure, HB 153, passed by the House of Delegates with an overwhelming majority of 70 to 26. It squeaked through the Senate, where Democrats and Republicans each have 20 seats, only because one Democratic Senator voted with the Republicans. Virginia’s Republican Governor, Bob McDonnell, is expected to sign it into law.

Its effect is to strip port and shipyard workers of Virginia Workers’ Compensation coverage as of this coming Jul. 1, on the pretext that they already have workers’ compensation through the federal Longshore and Harbor Workers Act (sailors are covered by the Jones Act). Especially affected will be the Southeastern Virginia region of Hampton Roads, Newport News, Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Environs, with their vast docks and shipyards.

The trouble is that for certain kinds of on-the-job injuries, workers can receive such federal compensation only for a short period of time, whereas the Virginia state compensation lasts radically longer: A matter perhaps of years instead of months, depending on how incapacitating the injury. Virginia workers’ compensation is also far more generous in paying funeral expenses for workers killed on the job: $10,000 instead of the federal $3,000.

The union representing many port workers, the International Longshoreman’s Association, denounced the measure, and the Virginia AFL-CIO mounted a lobbying campaign, but this issue got very little coverage in the media and was heavily pushed by shipyard and docking interests in a below-the-radar, blitzkrieg campaign that is characteristic of the present Republican strategies in this state.

The second bill, HB 33/S242, which also passed the House with a huge margin and squeaked through the Senate on Feb. 23, required the tie-breaking vote of Republican Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling. The bill “strengthens” Virginia’s existing right to work laws by stipulating that the use of union labor must not be a criterion for awarding state construction contracts. It was strongly opposed by the Virginia AFL-CIO, but passed anyway.

This immediately created a crisis with a very major and visible project: The extension of the District of Colombia Metro to Dulles International Airport, in Northern Virginia. This $6 billion project is being run by the Washington Metropolitan Airports Authority, control and funding of which is shared by Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Colombia, in addition to which it has federal funds.

This year, Virginia was supposed to contribute $150 million to the massive project, but the Virginia Department of Transportation is now threatening to cut off these funds if the WMAA does not drop stipulations about the use of union labor the provision of equivalent wages and benefits to unions in Virginia who opt not to belong to a union. In fact, the WMAA had already backed down a bit, removing an absolute requirement for union labor but awarding points in favor of a bidder if the use of union labor was offered in a bid. This does not satisfy the anti-labor forces, of course. The Virginia Republicans accuse Maryland, in particular, of being excessively friendly to organized labor.

Complicating the picture is that in the Obama administration’s latest budget proposals, $15 million in cuts are announced for Metro Washington transportation projects, according to the Washington Post. These cuts are being brandished by the Republicans as one more reason that “inefficient” practices such as the use of union labor have to be eliminated.

The Republicans are also using the situation to bolster their claims that the Obama administration is weak on job creation: If only the state did not have to pay union wages, they suggest, more workers, including the unemployed, could be hired with the money saved. Yet the pay for construction workers in the area does not seem at all high by national standards.

Claiming that paying workers less and less will create jobs for more and more people is an old scam, often refuted. But there may even be people who fall for this hokum, given the national campaign to demonize public sector workers.

Oddly enough, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who in other contexts can be relied upon to take positions that are both viciously reactionary and wildly impractical, has come out with a statement that what his fellow Republicans want to do is not legal; that the new law can only be applied to 100 percent Virginia projects and not joint projects like the Metro extension. Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton disagrees with Cuccinelli, so a big fight over the issue may be brewing.

Photo: Protesters participate in a Save the American Dream rally at the Capital in Richmond, Va. Steve Helber/AP Photos


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Emile Schepers was born in South Africa and has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He has worked as a researcher and activist in urban, working-class communities in Chicago since 1966. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He now writes from Northern Virginia.