Virginia Workers Deserve Rights

Editors’ Note: Excerpted from an article in Blue Virginia, January 11, 2020, by Brian D. Teucke.

As with many public policies, Virginia’s ban on public sector employee collective bargaining has a historical origin. Virginia is one of only nine states that bans public sector collective bargaining.

One page versus 65. That is the difference between the length of a standard educator contract in Virginia versus a standard contract in Pennsylvania, which allows collective bargaining. Virginia’s one-page contracts are short for a reason: they are purposely designed to be as vague as possible so as to allow all interpretations of workplace issues to fall on the side of the employer.

Where did this ban come from? 

It is rooted in the same anti-union traditions that have historically plagued most of the American South. Unlike many Northern states that experienced industrialism and the organization of labor, Virginia’s labor unions have been historically limited because of the Commonwealth’s traditional industries. As such, union culture in the Old Dominion has been mostly weak, misunderstood, and offered few legal protections. Only in a few pockets of the state have unions thrived or gained popular support.

That whites, people of color, men, women, natives, and immigrants could band together to challenge a white male oligarchy was deeply frightening to those in positions of Southern power.

Further, institutional racism and sexism have undergirded much of the anti-union fervor observable throughout the South’s past. Specifically, that whites, people of color, men, women, natives, and immigrants could band together to challenge a white male oligarchy was deeply frightening to those in positions of Southern power. Unionism, by its very definition, breaks down the walls of segregation and replaces it with worker solidarity. Combined with historic racism, anti-union legislation picked up momentum in the wake of the Taft-Hartley Act. In 1947, Governor William M. Tuck signed Virginia’s “right-to-work” bill into law, severely limiting already degraded union rights in the Commonwealth.

Beyond racism and Taft-Hartley, the Dillon Rule comes into play, which limits localities to powers expressly granted to them by the state. The 1977 Supreme Court of Virginia case, Commonwealth of Virginia v. County Board of Arlington County et al., used the legal philosophy of the Dillon Rule to declare that because no “express statutory authority” was given, a local governing body or school board could not negotiate and enter into binding collective bargaining agreements. 

Sixteen years later, Governor Douglas Wilder signed into law code that reinforced the court’s decision, officially banning all public-sector employees from collectively bargaining through their local unions for the terms of their contracts. Since then, a bill was introduced in 2008 to repeal the ban on public sector bargaining but failed to attract a cosponsor or any substantive support from either party. Wilder’s ban and the bill’s failure moved beyond the blatant racism that buttressed the anti-unionism of the early 20th century. The late 1990s and early 2000s witnessed a myopic austerity movement, an obsession that has infected local and state governments across America for the last 30 years.

State and local governments openly and cheerfully starve public schools of crucial funding so that tax incentives can be funneled to corporations. Localities proudly advertise their communities as “low tax” havens while simultaneously starving vital government services of minimum funding.

With euphemisms such as “fiscal responsibility,” this trend is decidedly anti-union, anti-collective bargaining, and has been directly influenced by union-busting firms, the Chamber of Commerce, and the machinations of activist billionaires such as the Koch Brothers. Because unions are the single strongest element in thwarting corporate welfare and the concentration of wealth among the 1%, they, and all their functions, have been deliberately targeted. Through the austerity movement, state and local governments openly and cheerfully starve public schools of crucial funding so that tax incentives can be funneled to corporations. Localities proudly advertise their communities as “low tax” havens while simultaneously starving vital government services of minimum funding. Think of Amazon’s new campus in Northern Virginia. 

Fear of unionization in Virginia has been expressed in other ways, including state laws banning right to work and punitive statutes furloughing public workers for a year for striking. This latter provision is overkill in a state that bans public sector unions. At the same time, right to work bans and punitive laws are overlooked, Virginia’s economic and political leadership champions the state as “good” for business. Together these forces and enactments have galvanized a wall of popular helplessness for those who support any form of unionization.  

In the 2020 legislative session, Virginia finally has sponsors for a bill that will repeal the disastrous ban on public-sector collective bargaining. Delegate Elizabeth Guzman has just filed that bill, HB 582. It is important, then, for all Virginians to explore why collective bargaining is a win for everyone, and why banning it carries unacceptable consequences.

It is time for the Commonwealth to engage in a dialogue concerning the issue of public- sector collective bargaining in particular and the benefits of unions for workers in general.



Categories: Issues, labor and unions, Local

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