It’s Time to Change Virginia’s Anti-Worker Laws

How to support labor in 2020 and beyond

A member of United Steelworkers Local 8888 waits outside Newport News Shipbuilding to help register workers to vote. (Credit: Sarah Holm, Virginian Pilot)

A 2018 Oxfam index of the best and worst states to work in America put Virginia at the bottom of all 50 states AND the District of Columbia. Virginia’s so-called Right to Work (RTW) law, along with a $7.25 minimum wage and lack of collective bargaining rights for public sector workers, puts the Commonwealth at the bottom of their rankings.

The Best States to Work Index: How the states rank overall (Credit Oxfam)

Decades of productivity gains among business have seen income and profits go to shareholders and executives, while real wages have remained stagnant.

Technology has allowed companies to reduce their workforce while increasing scalability. Blockbuster, at its height in 2004, employed 84,300 workers with a a $5 billion market cap. Today Netflix is valued at $162 billion value with only 5,400 employees. Instagram had just 13 employees when it was acquired by Facebook for a $500 million valuation in 2013.

The gig economy is destroying the middle class. Full time, long term employment is becoming a thing of the past. As companies like Uber and Amazon — two of the most valuable companies on the planet — come to rely on “independent contractors”, they are able to externalize liabilities like pensions and health insurance onto the the rest of society.

And vulture capitalists are continuously finding ways to strip business of value, selling off assets, mismanaging organizations, and offloading pensions and environmental cleanup responsibilities in bankruptcy court.

Technological advances on the horizon like automation and artificial intelligence will make the industrial revolution look like the stone age. Autonomous vehicles and drone technologies threaten to wipe out transportation jobs — the largest job sector in the country. Taxi drivers, truckers, postal and delivery jobs, likely gone in decades. Computer vision advances, RFID, and Amazon’s no-checkout stores will likely see the end of the grocery or convenience store cashier.

Professional jobs will not be immune from these transformations either. Big data and machine learning, coupled with health trackers and access to the internet of things, will affect how healthcare, the legal system, and infrastructure development are performed. (I’ve written about this issue previously).

There are solutions to these challenges. There is still time to act. My hope is that the likely 2020 Virginia Democratic majority will be willing to take the steps necessary to empower and protect workers and strengthen the greatest tool we have against the oppressive and destructive forces of big business: UNIONS.

Labor unions have been the strongest weapon against corrupt owners and bosses for the past 153 years. Worker power has been the counterbalance against business interests which have sought to exploit workers as much as they could get away with. Thanks to organized labor, and the sacrifices of those who have been beaten, arrested, and even killed for pushing back against these injustices, we’ve ended child labor, enacted the 40-hour workweek, the 8 hour day, overtime pay, the weekend, and paid time off.

In 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Wagner Act, which “established the National Labor Relations Board to protect the rights of workers to organize, bargain collectively, and strike.” Following World War II, southern Democrats joined Republicans to pass the Taft-Hartley Act, which repealed portions of the Wagner Act, imposed restrictions on worker’s rights, inverted the role of the NLRB to police labor, and allowed states to pass legislation aimed at wages, working conditions and job security: the Right to Work law. The name itself is a triumph of framing that has little to do with the right to earn an adequate standard of living.

What RTW proponents will tell you is that these laws are about “freedom”, that someone shouldn’t be forced to join a labor union as a condition of employment, or be fired for leaving one. What they don’t tell you is that Taft-Hartley already banned these types of ‘closed shops’. They’ll say that someone shouldn’t be forced to fund a Union’s political activity — which primarily goes toward Democratic candidates. What they don’t say is that “Beck rights” allow non-union members to prevent agency fees from being used outside of collective bargaining expenses. No, what RTW aims to do is starve labor unions by forcing them to represent non-members during the grievance process, and allow non-members to benefit from the collective bargaining and benefits that unions provide to all workers.

Dr. King, in a statement opposing the 1964 Oklahoma Right to Work Amendment.

As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King stated in 1961:

This so-called “right-to-work” law provides no “rights” and it provides no “work.” It is instead a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights. It is an anti-union law. Its purpose is to destroy the labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which the unions have improved the wages and working conditions of everyone.”

Further research into the economic claims of pro-RTW advocates, that the laws boost jobs and wage growth, show that they in fact have negative impact on wages, and little effect on job growth. The only factor that can be teased out of the last 70 years of RTW legislation is a decline in union membership, “the one institution that has the willingness and the capacity to protect [the] rights of working men and women.”

(Source)

The fact that the business lobby — operating through the Virginia GOP and Chamber of Commerce — still support RTW and even tried to enshrine it in the Virginia constitution in 2016 proves that workers are STRONGER TOGETHER. As any wolf or predator will tell you, the easiest way to catch your prey is to separate it from the herd. And make no mistake about it, RTW laws have only one aim: to destroy worker solidarity and make it easier to impoverish and exploit workers.

So when Democrats open the 2020 Virginia General Assembly session, I hope the first bill that goes through is one to increase the minimum wage to $10, followed by additional increases the following two years, until VA workers are earning a living wage.

Now business owners will tell you that this wage will be a disaster for jobs, that they’ll be forced to lay people off, or automate jobs away. Here’s the dirty little secret they don’t want you to know: they’re already doing it.

The Virginia-based National RTW Committee would tell you that RTW laws allow companies to compete in other states and internationally. We’ve been racing to the bottom for 40 years. That’s why I’ll be glad to co-sponsor a RTW-repeal bill that Delegate Lee Carter introduced earlier this year.

These two bills are a good start, but Virginia has got to go further to restore the middle class. That is why I am actively investigating the following proposals for legislation in the 2020 session:

Hold businesses accountable for economic incentive programs. A 2017 JLARC study found that some 80% of jobs promised to communities in exchange for tax cuts never materialized. These millions of dollars are owed back to the Commonwealth and localities, and if a business fails to deliver on these incentives then they need to pay up.

Give employees the right of first refusal when a business is sold. Instead of allowing vulture capital to dismantle a viable business — as happened with Toys R Us last year — allow the employees the opportunity to purchase a firm for themselves. Who better to shepherd a business for the benefit of workers than the workers themselves?

Codetermination: It’s time to give labor a seat the table from which corporations are run. Codetermination requires that public companies reserve a portion of their board of directors for members elected by the workers themselves. Federal legislation by Senators Tammy Baldwin and Elizabeth Warren to enact codetermination has been backed by nearly one-third of Senate Democrats, and I would be proud to sponsor such legislation in Virginia. Can you imagine the effect on corporate governance this would have on Hilton, Dollar Tree, Capital One, Carmax, Advance Auto — all Virginia-based Fortune 500 corporations along with Dominion and now Amazon — when their workers are duly represented on their boards?

Reclassification of workers: Misclassification of employees as independent contractors is rampant in the tech industry, and is a feature of the new ‘gig economy’. If your business depends on the labor of freelance workers, if these workers are under exclusive contract and you specify the time and the manner in which this work is performed, you have employees, and you should be required to provide them with the benefits and protections that they deserve, including unemployment insurance, paid time off, workers comp and healthcare benefits.

Workers deserve respect, dignity, and to be treated like human beings, not robots or cogs in a machine. Virginia’s embarrassing status as last in the nation for workers is shameful and needs to be corrected. With your help, we can win Virginia’s 91st District House of Delegates seat, help Democrats flip the General Assembly, and push a progressive, pro-labor agenda under unified Democratic leadership. Join our campaign at MichaelWadeForDeleagate.com/join, or make a contribution.

In solidarity, 
MBW

The author with his family.