For over seven decades, the business and political leadership of the Commonwealth (and those of many other states) has asserted, insisted that “right to work” (RTW) laws promote commercial investment and development. A corollary to RTW: state bans against collective bargaining agreements for public-sector workers. This leadership postulation has become an ideology, barely challenged, perhaps best epitomized by the presence of the National Right to Work Foundation on Braddock Road in Fairfax County. Its edifice is prominently adorned at its roofline with its corporate name.
In an article in National Review (April 6, 2011), then-Delegate Barbara Comstock declared, without evidence, that:
Virginia’s ban on public-sector collective bargaining, along with its strong right-to-work law, low taxes, and business-friendly environment, allows the Commonwealth to lead the country in job creation, attracting jobs from around the nation and world.
But are RTW laws and collective bargaining bans against public employees, in fact, helpful to an economy in the short and long term? What esoteric insight is possessed by leaders who persist in sustaining the myth about RTW laws? Does public opinion matter? A recent Gallup poll shows that union approval is at its highest in the last 50 years at 64%. A 16-point approval increase since 2009 includes a similar increase among Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. The graph covers 80 years of opinion results:
Internationally, RTW has an entirely different meaning than in the United States. The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, signed by the United States in 1977 states, in part:
The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right to work, which includes the right of everyone to the opportunity to gain his living by work which he freely chooses or accepts, and will take appropriate steps to safeguard this right. The steps to be taken by a State Party to the present Covenant to achieve the full realization of this right shall include technical and vocational guidance and training programs, policies and techniques to achieve steady economic, social and cultural development and full and productive employment under conditions safeguarding fundamental political and economic freedoms to the individual.
The US has chosen to interpret RTW to mean that an individual may not be compelled to join a labor organization as a condition of employment, although the individual enjoys the benefits of the collective bargaining process. More recently, SCOTUS in Janus v. AFSCME (2018) and several predecessor cases has extended that interpretation to include that an individual is not required to pay union dues on the basis of personal beliefs. These decision and precedents not only have overturned decades of precedent but have ignored the First Amendment right of workers to associate freely while favoring a libertarian ideology of individual freedom.
In the November 2016 elections, Virginians rejected a proposed constitutional amendment to include a RTW passage, with 53 % (1.9 million) voting against the measure. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2017, Virginia’s workforce had a membership of 176,000 union members, with another 46,000 covered by union contract for a total of 6% (vs. 11% nationally). Inferentially, at least, RTW laws in the Commonwealth are not popular by any majority. While the state’s ban on public-sector employee collective bargaining was overwhelmingly adopted by the General Assembly in 1993, the passage of a quarter century as indicated in the graph suggests a reversing trend in the popular mind.
Ideologically, labor organizations are disfavored by libertarians, who criticize the mandatory aspects of organized labor dynamics as not “spontaneous.” A recent piece by the Cato Institute maintains that civil society itself is not spontaneous but constituted of such organizations:
The complex network of associations and connections among people . . . is another example of spontaneous order; the associations within civil society are formed for a purpose, but civil society itself is not an organization and does not have a purpose of its own [emphasis added].
Thus, only spontaneous organizations, each with a purpose, are legitimate, while the purposeless civil society to which we all belong is not only not an organic entity but incompetent to exercise any authority to require its constituents to abide by expected behaviors such as paying taxes, obeying traffic signals, obtaining vaccinations, etc. This solipsistic view of collective functioning and social dynamics leads only to chaos.
It’s been over 70 years since Virginia adopted its RTW law and over 25 since it banned public-sector collective bargaining. At least one electoral vote and a number of polls have since communicated that there exists measurable public support to reconsider both. It is incumbent upon the state’s political leadership to initiate that discussion in the same way it undertook passage of the statutes in question. In civil society, such spontaneity is the stuff of civil discourse.