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Familiar Horizon: WV Weeks Away from What Could be a Year-Long “Right-to-Work” Fight

Senate President Bill Cole

Senate President Bill Cole

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In three weeks, the West Virginia state legislature will begin its first 2016 legislative session, and passing a “Right-to-Work” bill appears to be at the top of the GOP’s agenda.  Following the 2014 elections, Republicans took control of both chambers of the legislature for the first time in history.  The historic victory led to a change in the legislative agenda for the often blue-leaning state. 

One victim of the change was the prevailing wage, the calculation of which was changed to favor employers. But “Right-to-Work,” which Senate president Bill Cole says is “what is best for both West Virginia and West Virginians,” would be an even more damaging blow. Cole will move forward with the anti-worker legislation, he asserts. 

West Virginia would become the 26th “Right-to-Work” state in the nation, flipping the majority on the national level.  Part of Cole’s rationale for “Right-to-Work” is to “beat Kentucky to the punch.”  The neighbor state is already attempting to pass “Right-to-Work” on the local level and is likely to take a swing for the conservative fences under new Republican governor, Matt Bevin.  

“Right-to-Work” is likely to be vetoed by Democratic Governor Earl Ray Tomblin in West Virginia, though the legislature needs only a simple majority to override the veto.  This process differs from most other states.

Cole, should he fail to pass “Right-to-Work,” will be sure to keep the anti-worker iron hot while running for governor this year, as he has indicated he will. Tomblin must step down due to term limits.  
Workers advocates are doing their best to educate the public of the realities of “Right-to-Work-for-less,” as it is affectionately referred to by the labor community. Ken Hall, President of Teamsters Local 175, has been particularly vocal:

“Enough is enough. We need to be looking out for the people who work for a living; who pay taxes in this state; and who spend their money in this state. That’s what drives the economy.”

In a recent op-ed for the Herald-Dispatch, program director of the American Friends Service Committee’s WV Economic Justice Project, Rick Wilson, made a list of 8 reasons “Right-to-Work” is not right for West Virginia.  The top 3 reasons touch on an issue that is close to many West Virginians hearts: worker safety.

1. RTW undermines labor standards. Union workers are likely to earn living wages and benefits that make for a stable family - benefits like health care, sick days, vacations and pensions. Unions also help set the standards for nonunion employers. This is known as the spillover effect. RTW laws would reduce union membership and ultimately weaken the position of all workers.

2. Unions fought for years for policies we sometimes take for granted, like abolition of child labor, overtime laws, basic safety regulations. Weakening unions makes it easier to undermine these programs and policies.

3. Upper Big Branch is an extreme example of what can happen if unions are taken out of the picture. UBB was originally a union mine. After acquiring it, Massey made promises and the union was decertified. Without a union, workers had little voice about working in unsafe conditions. We know what happened next.

The horizon looks familiar.  Republicans are seeking to sure up support in the back rooms of Charleston while unions are informing legislators that there will be hell to pay in future elections if “Right-to-Work” becomes the law of the land.  Soon, the committee rooms will be filled by men and women in union t-shirts, many of whom will brave the cold to stay at the statehouse day and night as a reminder of just how important this decision is to the future of the state.  


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