By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer
Arlington, Va. (PAI) – Energized by wins in November that swept Democrats – notably pro-worker lawmakers — into a legislative majority in the state capital of Richmond, Va., unions and progressive allies launched a big push to repeal the Old Dominion’s 72-year-old so-called “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” (RTW).
“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.”
UNDER RTW INCOME INEQUALITY HAS GOTTEN WORSE
“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 Del. Lee Carter of Manassas, a Democratic Socialist, warned the overflow crowd in a large room at a progressive bookstore in the big D.C. suburb of Arlington 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 Republicans in the state legislature. And term-limited Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who often caters to corporate interests, has 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.
AN AMBITIOUS AGENDA
That party line and corporate agenda definitely does not include the causes that drew cheers, support and signatures at the Dec. 5 session, including:
• Becoming the first state in the U.S. to repeal a RTW law.
• Enacting a Virginia version of the Green New Deal.
• Raising the state minimum wage.
• Enacting paid family and medical leave.
• Ensuring Project Labor Agreements cover state and locally funded construction.
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.”
REPEAL OF RTW IN VIRGINIA EDUCATORS’ DEMANDS
Caught up in the enthusiasm and despite the obstacles, the crowd discussed how to put pressure on politicians – even 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 five percent raises. In this coming session, said Cheryl Gibbs-Binksley, who co-founded Virginia Educators United – which organized those marches – repeal 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.
PUTTING LAWMAKERS ON THE SPOT
The crowd also planned strategy to put lawmakers and Northam on the spot and to prevent progressive measures – led by right-to-work repeal – from 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 progressives defeated that 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 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.
PRESSURE ON LOCAL GOVERNMENTS
And 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 “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.