Mount Vernon Column: Enshrining ‘Free Riding’

Mount Vernon Column: Enshrining ‘Free Riding’


This year on Election Day, the first question you will see on the ballot is a proposed constitutional amendment that would prohibit a worker’s participation in a union as a condition for employment in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

In Virginia, non-union employees have the right to come to work and be represented by unions without having to be a member. This practice has been in the Code of Virginia since 1947 and is commonly called “right to work.” While it is called “right to work,” the name is very misleading as it has the opposite effect on workers. It provides employers an increased opportunity to deny workers access to a union or professional organization, yet allows some workers to benefit from the work of a union or organization without being a member. Some workers benefit from the union, like a firefighter’s or teacher’s association, but without contributing to it as the members do. This is “free riding.”

While I voted against changing our Constitution with this amendment in the 2016 General Assembly session, it passed and the Governor does not have the power to veto it.

The Constitution of Virginia, one of the first state Constitutions, historically was a source of inspiration for federal and state styles of government. Our Virginia Constitution outlines a House and Senate to create the legislature (The General Assembly) and the role and election of the Governor, for example. It is our governing document which sets down the rules by which all our laws should be established. The Code of Virginia is where laws belong, not in the Constitution.

Constitutional amendments originate in the General Assembly, and if they pass, the amendment must be considered again in the session following the election of new members and passed once more. If it passes a second time, the amendment is presented to the voters on Election Day. Virginia created this style of government to make the legislature more powerful than the Governor and for this reason the Governor cannot veto a proposed constitutional amendment and the voter’s decision becomes final law. That is why the Governor could not stop this proposed misleading amendment from moving forward.

This law has existed for 80 years, and does not need to be enshrined in the Constitution of Virginia. The current law is unfair and unhelpful and has lead to the widening gap of pay and benefits within the labor force. Those states that do not have such a law have much higher wages and less of a pay gap.

Let’s not mess with our Constitution. I oppose this amendment, intend to vote against it, and I hope you will as well.