Lots of legislative work to do yet for workers in Virginia
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is a conservative Democrat who cannot be counted upon to end right to work for less legislation. | Steve Helber/AP

On Sunday, March 8, the first 2020 session of the Virginia General Assembly (state legislature) wound up, leaving only some budgetary matters for action this week.

The session was the first time in years that both houses of the General Assembly had a Democratic majority: 55 Democrats versus 45 Republicans in the Senate, and 21 Democrats versus 19 Republicans in the lower chamber, the House of Delegates. So after years of Republican obstructionism, progressives in Virginia had hoped for advances in a number of fields, including workers’ and labor rights, race relations, green energy and control of utility rates, criminal justice reform and other matters.

Some things were achieved, but some major items were severely limited by opposition not only from Republicans but from the more conservative members of the Democratic Party caucus, especially in the Senate. And those bills that passed both houses will not be finalized until Gov. Ralph Northam signs them, or his veto is overridden at a special “veto session” of the General Assembly on April 22. He is expected to sign most of them.

On the positive side, Lee-Jackson Day as a state holiday was abolished. That holiday, which celebrated two Confederate generals (Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson) had been established in 1899 (for Lee) and 1904 (for Jackson) during the heart of the Jim Crow period, when the Confederacy was being whitewashed by racist groups, and statues and other memorials plus names of streets and schools were being dedicated to the pro-slavery heroes all over the South.

Such monuments are seen as deeply offensive, especially but not only to African-American residents of Virginia and beyond. To add to the joy of seeing Lee-Jackson day abolished, the General Assembly also voted to make election day, starting this November, a state holiday, countering the efforts of vote suppression that have been a major factor in this state’s politics.

Hailed as another success for progressive efforts was the passage of legislation creating a mechanism whereby undocumented immigrants in Virginia will be able to get drivers’ permit cards. This crowned with success the multi-year efforts of New Virginia Majority and other minority grassroots organizations in the state. The cards will allow the bearers to drive and, very importantly, to purchase auto insurance, but are not REAL ID cards and don’t serve as photo identification for voting purposes.

Speaking of voting, the General Assembly passed a law permitting Virginians to vote absentee without having to give an excuse, and the state’s photo ID law is on the way out. And drivers’ licenses will no longer be suspended because the driver cannot pay fines or court fees.

But labor did not do as well. A law which would have revoked Virginia’s “right to work” statute, introduced in the House by socialist delegate Lee Carter, was approved in the House Labor and Commerce Committee by a vote of 12 to nine, only to be blocked by the failure of the Appropriations Committee to act on it before the end of the session.

The deceptively labeled “right to work” law is one of the reasons that only 4.2 percent of wage and salary workers in Virginia belong to labor unions, so its repeal has been a goal for the labor movement for quite a while. Earlier, the state’s conservative Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, had strongly hinted that if a repeal bill were passed, he would veto it. Northam echoed the views of Republicans and business interests who always claim that Virginia’s prosperity depends on attracting industry by keeping unionization levels and wages low. This may have had a major impact on the defeat of the bill this time around.

Under Virginia’s unusual election laws, governors cannot be elected to consecutive terms, so it will be a new ball game in the gubernatorial election coming up in 2021, when left of center forces in the Democratic Party are sure to push one or more candidates more friendly to workers.

Virginia and the two Carolinas are the states with the strictest laws prohibiting collective bargaining for public service workers, so the repeal of those laws has also been a major goal for labor here. A strong bill, sponsored by Delegate Elizabeth Guzman, passed the house on a party line vote; it would have mandated that state, county, and municipal authorities must engage in collective bargaining with their workers. But in the Senate, a much weaker bill was filed by a more conservative Democrat, Dick Saslaw. In the end, Saslaw’s bill was the one that was sent to the governor for signing. The upshot is that state employees will still not be allowed to engage in collective bargaining, and county, municipal and school board employees will only be able to do so if their local legislative bodies authorize it.

Finally, on the labor front, there was some progress in changing Virginia’s ultra-low minimum wage, stuck like the federal minimum at $7.25 per hour for years now. The minimum wage will go up to $9.50 per hour in January of 2021, $11.00 in 2022 and $12.00 in 2023 and 2024. For the first time, home health care workers would be covered by this not very generous increase, but au pairs will not.

Some progress, but lots of work to do yet in the “Old Dominion.”



Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.