Right-to-Work: Right or Wrong for West Virginia?
On the first day of the 2016 legislative session, hundreds of union workers packed the upper rotunda to make their position clear to legislators they think the controversial Right-to-Work bill is wrong for West Virginia.
Officially known as the West Virginia Workplace Freedom Act, this bill would mean any new employment contract or contract that is modified, renewed, or extended as of July 1, 2016, could not require an employee to become or remain a member of a labor union, require the payment of union dues, or require the payment of those dues to a third party.
The act also nullifies existing agreements that contain these types of employee requirements.
Currently, the country is just as a divided on the issue of Right-to-Work as West Virginia. Twenty-five states have these laws while 25 do not. Opponents such as Kenny Perdue, president of the West Virginia AFL-CIO, said they have seen the effects on unions in other states, and worry what will happen if West Virginia becomes the 26th state to pass the legislation.
“Right-to-Work has one principle that’s why it was created in the 1900s, to eliminate the power of the union workforce,” Perdue said.
Currently, non-union workers in union work places still pay a certain fee to the union for their representation in contract negotiations. If West Virginia became a Right-to-Work state, the unions would no longer be able to collect those fees.
Dave Martin, president of Local 5668 Steelworker in Ravenswood, along with many other union members, said Right-to-Work simply gives non-union workers the license to be free riders, to benefit from the collective bargaining of a union without being a member or paying for it.
“If a person were to drop out of a union we would still be legally required to represent them even though they pay us no dues," Martin said. "If you could opt out of paying taxes but still get all the same benefits from all the government functions, why wouldn’t you too?"
Supporters of Right-to-Work, such as Bryan Hoylman, president of the Associated Builder and Contractors of West Virginia, see these effects in a much different light.
“This law does one very important thing: it prohibits organizations in the state of West Virginia, unions or otherwise, from requiring its members or employees from having to pay dues, fees or assessments as a condition of employment," Hoylman said. "Basically, what that means if you belong to an organized labor union and are not happy with their services you cannot pull yourself out of a union and stop paying the dues or you could lose your job. Our position is one that is very much in favor of this law because it provides workers freedom to make decisions for themselves.”
Union workers argue the impact of weighing individual worker freedoms over the protection of the group, such as Tara Turley, an electrician and member of Electrical Workers 466.
“I worked for a large corporation for half my life. They let me go after 13 years and I had to start over," Turley said. "When I started over, I chose something that I thought no one could take away from me, which was a trade. I put on my boots every day and go out in cold weather. I don’t get paid days off or any of that. I work real hard and I started over trying to do that, to take care of my girls. I have two daughters.”
Like Turley, Matt Harper with the Laborers Local 1353 also worries about his wages being affected by the bill. Harper is working on the renovations of Building 3 on the Capitol complex in Charleston.
“I love my job I love what I do," Harper said. "The people I work with, the company I work for. You don’t know what job you’re going to be on day-to-day. It’s versatile. That’s what I like about it. I wouldn’t want to do nothing else but what I do. Right-to-Work is wrong for the state of West Virginia because it does nothing but hurt the working person. It’s not going to bring no other jobs here, nothing of any significant value to this state.
Harper said he worries a Right-to-Work bill would not only decrease wages but also make the work environment less safe, as non-union workers would not be as well trained.
Supporters say there is significant value to Right-to-Work in West Virginia: that it is the first piece in a larger puzzle to build a better economic climate. Hoylman says while Right-to-Work is not a silver bullet, it is an important initial step in attracting new industry.
“When you have a situation where businesses are looking for new places to expand, they won’t go if you don’t check that box about Right-to-Work, then they’ll get into those other things," Hoylman said. "If you get all of those things and you get them into a place where there is positive then we can really spur some growth. You can’t just do one thing."
There have been studies that show it is unclear what the true impact of Right-to-Work is for West Virginia. Studies across the country have shown both positive and negative effects to implementing Right-to-Work laws.