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Are Virginia Democrats Selling Out the Unions?

They promised to repeal Right to Work, but are now backtracking on their deal

Brian Young's picture
Nov 13, 2019

For the past 25 years, Democrats have been trying to recapture complete control of the government in Virginia. For the past 72 years, unions have fought to repeal the state's Right to Work law. In 2019, both groups came together to try and achieve their goals. While the Democrats were victorious on Election Day, unions may not reap the benefits of their work.

During the election season, Democrats won a majority in the House of Delegates and the State Senate on a progressive platform that included repealing Right to Work and passing tougher gun laws. Union members from across Virginia, D.C., and Maryland came to the Old Dominion to help elect these “pro-worker” candidates. After the votes were counted, Democrats had gained control of the House and the Senate. Add to this the fact that they already have a Democratic Governor and the trifecta was put in place.

However, labor activists are expressing concern that the Democrats they elected may be selling them out. “A lot of legislators want to slow-walk their way into repeal while we want to forge ahead,” said Destiny LeVere, communications director for the state branch of the Virginia AFL-CIO. “Some legislators have said, ‘We feel this may not be the right time. There are other things that we can get done, so we shouldn’t be a bull in a china shop.”

The Governor, Ralph Northam’s recent comments are also worrisome. He has repeatedly refused to answer questions about whether he will sign a repeal of Right to Work. “That’s a hypothetical question. I deal with what’s put on my desk,” he said. "But what I would say is that, while we’re the No. 1 state in the country in which to do business, I want to do everything that I can to support our workers as well."

While Virginia is #1 in the country for business, they are ranked by Oxfam as the worst state in the country for workers.

Labor leaders are concerned because the new Democratic majority seems to be pushing other issues, like the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, gun control, and climate change legislation in front of repealing Right to Work. Virginia also has only a six-week legislative session making it even more difficult to get major legislation done. This disregard for repealing Right to Work also throws unions' legislative priorities into disarray. According to the IBEW, labor was hoping to also pass a repeal of the Comstock Rule, which bans project labor agreements on state funded projects, increase the minimum wage, and strengthen the definition of journeyman.

Northam is also a huge variable. The Governor is term limited and his political career is likely over after he was caught wearing racist, blackface. This means that Northam is not likely to be swayed by an outside lobbyist. It also means he could be looking for a landing spot once he leaves public office and that could give big, anti-union companies some leverage in bribing him to veto the bill.

For Northam and the Democrats in the legislature, this is their opportunity to create a legacy. Or they can show union members that once they are elected to Richmond they sold out and forgot the people who helped them get there.

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