Virginia unions, Dem allies push to repeal right-to-work-law
Virginia Delegate Lee Carter at the Capitol in Richmond, Virginia, February 22, 2019. Steve Helber/AP

ARLINGTON, Va.—Energized by wins in November that swept Democratsnotably pro-worker lawmakersinto a legislative majority in the state capital of Richmond, Virginia unions and progressive Democratic allies launched a big push to repeal the Old Dominion’s 72-year-old “right to work” law.

Virginia Diamond, president of the Northern Virginia Labor Council and convener of the session to discuss the repeal campaign, led the crowd in advancing arguments for repeal of right-to-work.

“Virginia is a really crappy place for employees, and right-to-work is one big reason why,” she said. It not only weakens workers and drives down their power to improve their wages, benefits, and standards of living, but it harms worker safety, education, and progressive causes such as the Virginia version of the Green New Deal. The two women who lead the state’s GND volunteer campaign attended and enthusiastically back RTW repeal.

“Virginia is one of nine states where income inequality has gotten worse” since the nation started crawling out of the corporate-caused Great Recession in 2010, another speaker said. “One of the main reasons for that is the attacks on and suppression of the union movement,” she added. RTW repeal would strengthen workers, their unions, and their power, all the speakers said.

But RTW repeal’s sponsor, State Delegate Lee Carter of Manassas, a Democratic Socialist, warned the overflow crowd at a progressive bookstore in Arlington that the road won’t be easy.

That’s because advocates face a predictable strong and well-financed opposition and a smear campaign from business and the now-minority GOPers in the legislature. And term-limited Gov. Ralph Northam (D) often caters to the corporate class. He’s already said he opposes repealing right-to-work.

Then there’s “The Virginia Way” in Richmond, Carter explained: “A bipartisan consensus that you do what business wants.” The old guard and powers-that-be push it. Carter and the progressives push back.

“I was often on the end of 98-2 votes” in the House of Delegates because he opposed the Virginia Way, Carter added. Scorecards show he dissented from the party line more than any other state lawmaker.

That party-line and corporate agenda definitely does not include the causes that drew cheers, support and signatures on an activists’ list at the Dec. 5 session: Becoming the first state in the U.S. to repeal a right-to-work law, enacting a Virginia version of the Green New Deal, raising the state minimum wage, enacting paid family and medical leave and ensuring that Project Labor Agreements cover state and locally funded construction projects, among others.

Those issues and others are “about fighting for everyone,” said Service Employees local leader David Broder. “It’s not just about getting a raise, but fighting for economic justice, criminal justice reform, environmental justice, and common-sense gun controls.” Lax gun laws are also a big flaw in Virginia, scene of two mass killings and a 2017 neo-Nazi riot. “If you aren’t safe, a raise isn’t worth a damn.”

Carter’s colleague, Del. Ibraheem Samirah, D-Reston, said RTW foes should confront the 1%.

“Let’s face it: Democrats suck at messaging,” Samirah said. The fight to repeal RTW “is really about the landlords versus the landless, the powerful versus the powerless and the oligarchs versus all of us.”

Caught up in the enthusiasm and despite the obstacles, the crowd discussed how to put pressure on politicianseven those “progressives” who now warn against rocking the boat. Carter’s retort to such waverers: Business and the GOP will tar all the Democrats as Socialists regardless of whether the Dems stand up for RTW repeal or not, so Democratic lawmakers in Richmond might as well do so.

The tactics will include mass rallies to show support for workers and unions, just as 5,000 Virginia teachers descended on the Capitol last year to demand and get 5% raises. In this coming session, said Cheryl Gibbs-Binkley, who co-founded Virginia Educators Unitedwhich organized those marchesrepeal of RTW “for private-sector unions” as well as public worker unions “is in our demands.”

RTW repeal, those demands, and others will be aired at labor’s Lobby Day in Richmond on Jan. 27.

The crowd also planned strategy to put lawmakers and Northam on the spot and to prevent progressive measuresled by right-to-work repealfrom being sunk in committees before they ever hit the floor. “The business-friendly Democrats have been too comfortable for far too long,” Carter said.

And advocates will continue a campaign, proudly started by the Labor Committee of the Democratic Party in nearby deep-blue Alexandria, to get local governments to officially endorse repealing RTW.

The RTW foes will need all that to overcome decades of corporate anti-union propaganda for RTW, a favorite right-wing and business cause since at least 1944. Racists started it then to split white workers from solidarity with African-American worker colleagues, another speaker noted. Handouts included both that ignominious history of RTW and its bad economic impact on workers, unions, and even firms.

But Diamond also reminded the crowd that Virginians beat the right on RTW before. In 2016, the Virginia-based National Right to Work Committee and its corporate contributors tried to write RTW into the state Constitution. Unions and progressive groups defeated that pro-RTW referendum.

Many people offered suggestions and asked questions about how to strengthen the repeal cause and push it over the legislative line. One suggested shaming Northam into signing the repeal, by reminding him of RTW’s racist history and saying repeal is his chance to get on the right side in race relations. Northam caught enormous flak early this year for a college-era picture of him appearing in blackface in a revue.

Another speaker, a local economic development official, said pressure on local governments to force contractors and bidders to adhere to pro-worker labor standards could help, too.

Carter warned that “old guard” Democratic legislative leaders might try to derail RTW repeal by giving workers and their allies the other progressive legislation they advocate, including raising the minimum wage and implementing PLAs in return for backing off repeal. He pledged not to give in to that scheme.

There’s one other tactic to enact right-to-work repeal, one African-American woman said from the back of the room near the end of the session: Retribution against pro-RTW lawmakers, especially turncoats.

“I’ll tell ’em there’s no excuse” for opposing right-to-work in this year’s legislative campaigns, then doing nothing to repeal it once voters elected them, she said. “We voted you in. We will vote your asses out.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.