This is Why Labor Should Care About Virginia’s Gubernatorial Primary

Douglas Williams June 12, 2017

Much like the open shop referendum last year, this year’s gubernatorial election in Virginia is significant for labor. It’s a chance to contest the open shop in a region that has long seemed closed to any pro-labor advances on the issue. (Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Last year, I wrote about the open shop ref­er­en­dum in Vir­ginia, call­ing it the most impor­tant elec­tion for the labor move­ment in 2016. While Vir­ginia has been a right-to-work” state since 1947, sup­port­ers of the ref­er­en­dum argued that a con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ment was nec­es­sary to pre­vent Demo­c­ra­t­ic Attor­ney Gen­er­al Mark Her­ring or future Demo­c­ra­t­ic leg­isla­tive majori­ties from over­turn­ing the statute.

In a year where the elec­tion of an anti-labor pres­i­dent coin­cid­ed with votes in Alaba­ma and South Dako­ta that affirmed the open shop, Vir­ginia gave labor its bright­est vic­to­ry: Almost 54 per­cent of vot­ers across the Com­mon­wealth reject­ed the con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ment. And the no” vote was spread out across the Com­mon­wealth, with places as dis­parate polit­i­cal­ly as urban Arling­ton and rur­al Acco­mack vot­ing against the mea­sure, which was bit­ter­ly opposed by Virginia’s labor movement.

Much like the open shop ref­er­en­dum last year, this year’s guber­na­to­r­i­al elec­tion in Vir­ginia is sig­nif­i­cant for labor. It’s a chance to con­test the open shop in a region that has long seemed closed to any pro-labor advances on the issue. The pri­ma­ry vote is set for Tues­day and the labor move­ment would do well to make its pres­ence felt.

Spread of the open shop

Polit­i­cal­ly, the open shop has been some­thing of a set­tled mat­ter in most of the South.

One of the first open shop statutes passed in Flori­da in 1944. As Gilbert Gall recounts in his Labor Stud­ies Jour­nal arti­cle, lead­ers of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Labor (AFL) were slow to respond to the calls from its state affil­i­ates for assis­tance in defeat­ing the measure:

…..Pres­i­dent Green affirmed that the AFL want­ed to help, but, he added, it is expect­ed that the Flori­da labor move­ment will do its part.’ He then chas­tised (Flori­da labor leader W.E.) Sul­li­van for the recent defeat of a lib­er­al Flori­da Con­gress­man, stat­ing that he could not under­stand why labor in Flori­da did not make a bet­ter show­ing.’ If it had, Green argued, it would have had a tremen­dous moral effect’ against the com­ing Right to Work amend­ment, though exact­ly how he did not say.”

Florid­i­ans would go on to approve the mea­sure with about 55 per­cent of the vote. While the open shop would end up spread­ing to places like Nebras­ka, South Dako­ta and Iowa over the next three years, it was the South where the con­cept real­ly took hold. By the end of the 1950s, near­ly all of the south­ern states would have right-to-work leg­is­la­tion on the books.

A chance for change

Giv­en that his­to­ry, it may not come as much of a sur­prise that the polit­i­cal sup­port for Virginia’s sta­tus as an open shop state has been bipar­ti­san. The cur­rent gov­er­nor, Ter­ry McAu­li­ffe, gave a speech to busi­ness lead­ers pledg­ing his full-throat­ed sup­port for the law dur­ing his 2013 guber­na­to­r­i­al run and has stat­ed that he would not seek to change it as governor.

This brings us to the Demo­c­ra­t­ic guber­na­to­r­i­al pri­ma­ry this year, which fea­tures a race between Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and for­mer U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello.

Northam, a for­mer state sen­a­tor and erst­while poten­tial par­ty-switch­er, began the race as the favorite after Her­ring decid­ed to for­go a run for gov­er­nor and seek re-elec­tion as attor­ney gen­er­al. He lined up the endorse­ment of McAu­li­ffe as well as a fundrais­ing advan­tage of about half a mil­lion dol­lars. Per­riel­lo, who upset arch-con­ser­v­a­tive U.S. Rep. Vir­gil Goode in the 2008 con­gres­sion­al elec­tion, has closed the gap by turn­ing the elec­tion into a ref­er­en­dum on Don­ald Trump.

But here’s the rea­son why this elec­tion is so impor­tant to labor: Per­riel­lo has tak­en a strong stance against the open shop. In an arti­cle out­lin­ing his campaign’s Plan For Work­ing Fam­i­lies”, Per­riel­lo states that:

Too often, work­ers in Vir­ginia don’t get the pro­tec­tions they need to earn their right­ful pay and main­tain con­sis­tent hours. Wage theft, the denial of ben­e­fits, and reduced bar­gain­ing pow­ers are all side effects of a long, sus­tained attack on work­ers’ rights in Vir­ginia. Work­ers do bet­ter when they have strong unions, and the decline in union mem­ber­ship is a major rea­son why wages have effec­tive­ly flat-lined since the 1970s. That’s why I oppose so-called right to work’ laws that kneecap unions from help­ing work­ers bar­gain for high­er wages.”

He has defend­ed this stance in guber­na­to­r­i­al debates as well, not­ing that he would fight for a repeal of the law even though it is unlike­ly to pass through a Gen­er­al Assem­bly that is dom­i­nat­ed by Repub­li­cans. Northam, on the oth­er hand, has called for Democ­rats to focus on oth­er labor issues such as sick leave and an increased min­i­mum wage instead of pick(ing) fights that we per­haps can’t win right now.”

Sick leave and a min­i­mum wage increase are impor­tant, for sure, but with­out a strong labor move­ment, it is hard to get the pop­u­lar groundswell need­ed to prod leg­is­la­tors to make pos­i­tive moves on those issues, either. Democ­rats should be unit­ed in their oppo­si­tion to a pol­i­cy that drains resources from labor unions and seeks to under­mine the growth and sta­bil­i­ty of the move­ment as a whole.

Anoth­er major vic­to­ry for the labor move­ment in Vir­ginia could have major impli­ca­tions for the AFL-CIO’s strat­e­gy in the South fur­ther down the line. We should ensure that such a big oppor­tu­ni­ty is not missed.

Dou­glas Williams is a doc­tor­al stu­dent in polit­i­cal sci­ence at Wayne State Uni­ver­si­ty in Detroit, where his research cen­ters around pub­lic pol­i­cy, dis­ad­van­taged com­mu­ni­ties and the labor move­ment. He blogs at The South Lawn.
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