Labor’s Love Lost in Last Place in Virginia

New data have emerged demonstrating what most observers of the Virginia economic and political scene have always known: the Commonwealth is unfriendly to organized labor in particular and to working families more generally.

According to the Census Bureau, Virginia’s population is 8,470,020, of which 3,383,321 (about 40%), according to Virginia’s Employment Commission, are employed. US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data indicate that nationally, about 11% of the labor force belongs to unions, while in Virginia the rate is 4.6% (about 155,000). Other BLS data demonstrate that union membership or employment in a union-covered industry raises compensation levels materially, especially with respect to benefits such as pension and health insurance.

So, it was not exactly blockbuster news that Virginia ranked 51st [including D.C.] in the United States in The Best States to Work Index, a new report by Oxfam []. But the news was certainly noteworthy. The Commonwealth, along with all states, was evaluated on three major dimensions of the index: wage policies, worker protection, and right to organize. Virginia placed 51st in wage policy, 48th in worker protection, and 49th in right to organize. Overall, it ranked 51st.

One might not be concerned being consigned to last place by a handicapper known for poor selections. Oxfam is an international charitable organization founded in England in 1942 as the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief, which now operates in 90 countries including the United States. It is primarily dedicated to promoting programs to eradicate poverty.

The three dimensions reflect a dynamic relationship among federal and state laws which, for the most part, delimit the potential for workers to participate in and contribute to their own economic well-being among significant worker populations such as public employees. Each of the three indices represents vectors that respond to labor organization activity and, for this reason, are prominent in the Oxfam discussion and findings.

While some might be skeptical of the findings, BLS in a 2017 report noted that while nationwide union membership was 10.7% of the labor force, Virginia’s was about 4.5% for the decade 2007–2017. This ranking reflects, in large part, the statutory barriers that unionization faces in Virginia from its strong “right to work” prohibition in effect since 1947, as well as state laws prohibiting strikes by public employees and collective bargaining, especially applicable to police officers, firefighters, and teachers.

The wage policies dimension considered the minimum wage in relation to the level necessary for a family of 4. The average among the states was 37, with Virginia at 0 in 51st place, just below New Hampshire which scored 11.

The worker protection dimension utilized a set of criteria for which the states averaged 33.5, with Virginia in 48th place at 5.56, tied with Georgia.

The right to organize dimension showed 21 states with an index of 100, while Virginia in 49th place scored 0, along with North and South Carolina.

The questions for policymakers that arise include how much Virginia’s last place showing may in fact be due to the complex of hurdles faced by unions, and whether those hurdles are desirable because they create a positive attraction for business investment. If the state’s lack of pro-union attributes were so attractive to business, then there would be stampedes of investors into the Commonwealth. Thus, while such attributes may exist, there is no evidence that they contribute to economic growth by way of new investment. Clearly, the Oxfam evidence is that the Commonwealth is not attractive to labor on the whole and that restriction becomes a negative factor when, as now, unemployment is low and skilled workers are in demand., a result that inhibits new business development.

The larger, naturally occurring question, then, is what Virginia’s index might look like were a pro-union statute implemented, particularly one permitting collective bargaining by public-sector workers. The political question is whether the state’s elected leadership has the will to choose from the perceived alternatives between labor and capital.

Categories: Issues, Local, State

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