As a nation, this week on January 20th, we celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stated so eloquently in 1961, “We must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work.’ It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights.”
When I first ran for Delegate to represent the community I grew up in here in Mount Vernon, in what is the 44th district, one of the first questions I was asked was my position on the fact that Virginia is a “right-to-work” state. I knew it was one of those slogans that Dr. King warned us about and that it was an anti-labor construct. But, I didn’t know its racist beginnings or how it has exacerbated income inequality in our country.
Indeed, right-to-work is one of the most misunderstood phrases ever coined. Many people think “right-to-work” means “right to a job.” This is not the case at all. What “right-to-work” means is that employees cannot be compelled to pay union dues, but can still access the benefits of union representation without paying for them. In other words, employees in unionized workplaces are banned from negotiating contracts which require all members who benefit from the collectively bargained agreement to contribute to the costs of union representation.
There are plenty of occupations, like in law, for example, where you are required to pay dues to be able to practice. This is not unusual. To be clear, right-to-work is really about limiting unionization and the power of working people. Many now call it the “right to work for less” which is closer to the truth.
In the 1930s, white supremacists in the South worried that if unions brought working class whites and blacks together, Jim Crow-era laws would be upended. The right-to-work movement spread throughout the south reaching Virginia in 1947 where it was enacted under then Governor Bill Tuck. Governor Tuck hated unions and loathed racial integration. When in 1946 the Virginia IBEW workers threatened to strike for better wages, Tuck referred to the union’s representatives as “evil leadership.” In response to striking coal miners in 1948, Tucked called unions “a deplorable form of gangsterism that will not be tolerated in Virginia.” He was also a signatory to the “Southern Manifesto” which opposed racial integration of public places; and later, when he was a Congressman he was vehemently against the Civil Rights Act of 1965.
Recent studies demonstrate the devastating impact of right-to-work laws on wages. A groundbreaking study from Princeton University argues one of the biggest factors in increasing income inequality is the decline in union membership. Princeton was able to study the effects of union membership while controlling for variables such as education, skill, and race. What the study found is that on average over the last 80 years, union workers make around 15-20 percent more than non-union workers in the same field. Indeed, a 2018 analysis from the Economic Policy Institute found that the hourly wage of men in right-to-work states is $18.25, compared with $20.78 in non-right-to-work states, a difference of nearly 14 percent. The pattern of lower wages is even more pronounced for women and people of color. Right-to-work laws have a disproportionate impact on minorities because of their greater rates of work in unionized industries.
Eliminating right-to-work in Virginia is a matter of economic and racial justice. We now have the opportunity to address this outdated and racist law that is out of step with the values of a 21st century Virginia. It’s time to repeal it. I will be voting for HB 153.