A New Era in Commonwealth Labor Relations?

Historical antecedents or events do not always correlate to a contemporary cultural or political value. In fact, there is often no traceable connection, especially as the passage of time may have dissipated any thread of a relationship. Yet our political dialogue is strewn with references to the words of the Founding Fathers justifying some view or opinion. The late Justice Antonin Scalia searched colonial history far and wide to uncover instances to validate his opinion of the individual right to possess firearms in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008).  

Virginia’s antipathy toward organized labor is palpable, especially among political and industry leadership.

Virginia’s antipathy toward organized labor is palpable, especially among political and industry leadership, often expressed on the editorial pages of the Commonwealth’s newspapers. King James I established the Virginia Company in 1606, propelling the first settlers to the area in 1607. By 1619, the Virginia Company created the first legislature – the General Assembly – in the new world. That was the same year that the initial group of African nationals was brought to these shores. Some radical historians mark these events as the origin of the Commonwealth’s labor antipathy – corporate birth and reliance upon free labor.  While such observation may be stretching history, Scalia’s scholarship, thin as it was, carried the Court to a judicial conclusion now the rule of law.

Yet other observers seeking to explain Virginia’s labor antipathy cite the fervor that rejected the Constitutional formation of a more perfect union that succumbed to secession, rendering “union” an ephemeral notion. In 1947, Virginia adopted legislation positioning the state as a “right to work” jurisdiction, meaning no individual could be forced to belong to a labor union. By 1993, collective bargaining for public employees was declared anathema by legislation terminating the employment of public employees participating in a strike.

In November 2016, another nail was offered to seal the coffin of organized labor when anti-labor advocates proposed a Constitutional referendum to promote the legislative hurdle of right to work to a higher plane. To the surprise of many, the measure was soundly defeated by the electorate.  Thus, for the first time, public policy on the issue of labor relations in the Old Dominion was determined by popular vote. Perhaps all of these threads are part of the fabric of the state’s civic culture regarding organized labor. That fabric, however, may now be fraying.

The stage has now been set for a distinctly different era in the state’s labor relations.

In February 2020, the Fairfax County School Board passed a resolution favoring a collective bargaining agreement for the county’s public school teachers. Before adjournment, the General Assembly adopted legislation authorizing localities to enter collective bargaining agreements with public employee organizations. The stage has now been set for a distinctly different era in the state’s labor relations. There remain, however, a number of public policy issues surrounding this novel potential.

If Fairfax County proceeds to enter a collective bargaining agreement with its teachers, what effect, if any, might it have upon migration of experienced teachers from other counties or regions that lack collectively bargained salary scales? Such migration may seriously exacerbate the urban-rural dichotomy.

Will the taxpaying public favor the right of public school teachers to strike? Or, ought any collective bargaining agreement with public employees contain a “no strike” provision?  

In light of the present social distancing barriers created by the coronavirus pandemic, including school closings, will the taxpaying public favor the right of public school teachers to strike? Or, ought any collective bargaining agreement with public employees contain a “no strike” provision? This new era of labor relations in the Commonwealth faces even greater questions of public policy.

The relationship of organized labor with the societies in which it exists has been marked by tension since groups of workers first joined to bargain for benefits. The advance of the Industrial Revolution converted human labor into a commodity, while at the same time creating extreme poverty and displacement of families. That set of circumstances, in turn, led to the threat of socialism and communism, economic curses to the free market and the theocracy of private property.

One response, in 1891, arose from Pope Leo XIII, who issued Rerum Novarum (literally, “of new things”), wherein he condemned socialism, communism, and affirmed the right of working people to accumulate and possess private property. Essentially, the papal message recognized a right of workers to organize without interference by government in order to gain fair wages in a bargain with more powerful employers.

The conflict between labor, management, and government has abated little in the intervening years, as Virginia’s history instructs. The best that may be said is that the larger society, particularly that in the United States, has become more informed and knowledgeable about this tripartite relationship and the implications for society and the public at large. Antipathy to organized labor appears to be waning, certainly from the point of view of workers and apparently with respect to the anti-labor establishment.

The Commonwealth seems to be on the cusp of a firsthand, face to face experience with history and the future.  



Categories: Issues, labor and unions, Local, National

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