Virginia: Campaign to repeal ‘Right to Work’ law
Screen shot from video of Our Revolution Virginia Monthly Meeting. | Facebook

For the third consecutive year, labor and allies in Virginia are preparing for a fight to remove the state’s “Right to Work” law from the statute books.

On Saturday, January 16, the Virginia Our Revolution organization sponsored an online kickoff meeting featuring progressive Democratic Party members of the General Assembly (Virginia’s state legislature) and labor leaders to get behind a Bill, House Bill 1755, in the House of Delegates, the lower house of the General Assembly. This bill would repeal Virginia’s longstanding “Right to Work” statute, which is seen by organized labor as a major obstacle to unionization in Virginia.

Virginia has the reputation of being one of the most anti-worker states in the country. In 2019, only 4.0 percent of wage and salaried workers in Virginia belonged to labor unions, and only 5.2 percent were either members or non-members represented by unions. This figure is dropping: in 2018, 4.2 percent were union members and 5.5 percent represented by unions. Only in the two Carolinas was union membership lower.

Last year, there was also an attempt to repeal “Right to Work” in Virginia, but it was blocked in the legislature by a combination of Republicans and conservative Democrats, the latter including Governor Ralph Northam. The argument for opposing the repeal was, as always, that abolishing right to work would cause companies to not to want to come to Virginia, and thus would “cost jobs.”

But this did not cause labor and its allies to give up hope. After all, an attempt by the Republicans to enshrine Right to Work in the Virginia Constitution was defeated by the voters in a 2016 referendum. This showed that there was no public groundswell for protecting the law. So the struggle to revoke the statute was not deterred.

At the Saturday meeting, the chief sponsor of House Bill 1755, Delegate (state representative) Lee Carter, an openly declared socialist from Northern Virginia, provided an interesting history of “Right to Work” in the United States. The father of “Right to Work,” Reed Larson, took advantage of Section 4 B of the 1947 anti-labor and anti-communist Taft Hartley Law to get states to pass Right to Work legislation and other anti-union measures. Carter and other speakers at the kickoff pointed out that blatantly racist arguments were often used to promote Right to Work laws. For example, whites were told that if closed shops were allowed, they have to be in the same union with African-American workers and call them their “brothers.”

Two other Democratic co-sponsors of HB 1755 also spoke at the kickoff meeting. Delegate Joshua Cole, who represents the area of Fredericksburg and Stafford County in Northern Virginia, pointing out the relevance of the effort to repeal Right to Work to the upcoming Martin Luther King day holiday, stated that the “Black-white economic divide [in the United States] is as great as it was in 1968,” when King was murdered while supporting African-American sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. Cole and other speakers explained that anti-labor measures are also anti-minority measures. Delegate Sally Hudson, who represents the city of Charlottesville and environs, also emphasized the racist roots of “Right to Work.”

Labor spoke out powerfully at the kickoff meeting. Joshua Armstead, Vice President of Unite-Here Local 23, which represents workers in Washington DC and Northern Virginia, Don Slaiman from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and Virginia Diamond, President of the AFL-CIO of Northern Virginia, all pledged their support to the bill. Speakers also included Larry Cohen, Chairman of Our Revolution, Sandra Klassen, Chair of Our Revolution-Northern Virginia, and Michelle Woolley, chair of the Coalition to Repeal Right to Work.

This year there are state elections in Virginia for governor, lieutenant governor, and all 100 seats in the House of Delegates. By Virginia law, Governor Northam cannot run for re-election and the issue of right to work is sure to be an issue in the campaign.

Meanwhile, supporters of repeal are circulating a petition to help drum up public support for HB 1755. I signed and urge all to do so too.


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.