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Fight Over Right to Work Evokes History of Richmond Unions

Person holds sign
In this Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021, file photo, Michael Foster of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union holds a sign outside an Amazon facility where labor is trying to organize workers in Bessemer, Ala. Despite the strongest public support and the most sympathetic president in years, the American labor movement just suffered a stinging defeat. Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, overwhelmingly voted against joining the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union in much-anticipated election results announced Friday, April 9. (Photo: Jay Reeves/AP Photo)

Virginia has one of the lowest union membership rates of any state. In 2020, only 4.4% of Virginia workers were union members, fifth lowest in the nation. But unions have a long history in the commonwealth, flourishing around the turn of the 20th century in industrial Richmond and the coalfields of the Southwest before union density began to fall in the 1950s.   

That wasn’t merely by happenstance. American union membership surged in the U.S. following the passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, which guarantees the right to unionize to private sector employees.

Congress worked to curtail union power by passing the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 over the veto of President Harry Truman, paving the way for states to introduce so-called “right to work” laws, which make it more difficult for unions to operate. Virginia was an early adopter, passing its right to work provision before the Taft-Hartley Act was even approved.

Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed another sweeping labor reform bill which includes a provision to invalidate those laws.

The Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which previously passed the House in 2020, was put forward by Virginia Rep. Bobby Scott, who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee. 

“Unions are very popular now, as popular as they have been in recent history,” Scott said in an interview. “Estimates are that a significant portion, at least half of the working public, would like to be in a union but aren’t in a union because the process of joining a union, and forming a union, are so complicated.”

The PRO Act would make it illegal for companies to attempt to influence union elections. While the National Labor Relations Act gives employees the right to vote for union representation, employers have been free to interfere in those elections.

In Bessemer, Ala.,16 miles southwest of Birmingham, employees at an Amazon warehouse recently voted against unionizing, but organizers are calling for the National Labor Relations Board to step in and invalidate the result. Prior to the vote, Amazon engaged in a campaign against unionizing, holding mandatory meetings to dissuade workers from joining a union and blanketing the warehouse in anti-union posters.

“The PRO Act streamlines the process for having an election, and it has reasonable sanctions for employers that commit unfair labor practices, like firing somebody for trying to form a labor union,” Scott said.

Proponents of pro-union legislation say increasing union density would help moderate income inequality by raising wages, a claim that’s backed by research. Wealth inequality has skyrocketed in the U.S. since the 1980s and is greater than in peer nations.

Scott says that in addition to simplifying elections, the PRO Act would boost union membership by annulling states’ “right to work” laws. Those laws allow unionized employees to opt out of paying dues.

“People who are benefiting from increased wages, safer workplaces, better benefits can pay a fair share for the representation by the union that is required by law,” Scott said. “They get those benefits… and right now they’re able to pay nothing and absolutely just freeload.”

Right to work laws are primarily found in southern states, a pattern University of Nevada, Las Vegas law professor Reuben Garcia says stems from Jim Crow-era policy.

“There was a tension between Southern states in the 1930s, ‘40s, ‘50s and their concern that some of the workers, which were in many industries largely African Americans or women, would get a lot of power from federal labor law,” he said. “Right to work… was also a product of that kind of legacy [of] the roots of discrimination and the fear of workers of color or women having too much power at the workplace.”

Though Virginia’s early adoption of the provision helped depress union membership in the state, Richmond was briefly a seat of union power following the Civil War.

A Seat of Power for Black Labor

At the dawn of the Civil War, Richmond was among the largest cities in the South. And according to West Virginia University historian Ronald Lewis, it was the only city in the South to be fully industrialized.

People posed for picture
Thousands of Black women worked in Virginia's tobacco industry, often as stemmers. In the 1930s, Black women such as Louise Harris, led a series of strikes for better pay and working conditions. (Photo courtesy of the Valentine).

Richmond’s industry depended on the labor of enslaved people who worked as millers, coopers, tobacco stemmers and in other occupations, often alongside free, white workers. 

Following the end of the war, emancipated Black citizens voted hundreds of Black men into political positions across the South, including Rep. John Mercer Langston, the only Black person Virginia sent to congress until Scott’s election in 1992. 

In Richmond, Black political power was concentrated among union members, according to Peter Rachleff, a former history professor at Macalester College who now co-directs the East Side Freedom Library in St. Paul, Minn. 

“In 1886, African American and white workers together organized under the aegis of a labor organization called the Knight of Labor,” Rachleff said. “They had organized a third party in Richmond, and they had won control of city council away from both the Republican and Democratic parties. They called themselves the Workingmen’s Reform Party.”

Building with scaffolding
Old City Hall in downtown Richmond served as the seat of the city government for around 80 years. (Photo: Alex Scribner/VPM News)

The party was spurred into politics by the issue of replacing Richmond’s City Hall, which had been burned down during the war. Rachleff says the incumbent City Council hoped to replace the structure through a competitive bid process, selecting the lowest bidder. 

Members of the Workingmen's Reform Party opposed this, campaigning instead on a promise to erect the building using local labor, paid union wages over eight hour days, and local materials. After their electoral triumph, the party came through on the promise, finalizing construction in 1894

Following this victory, however, Rachleff says Black political power was undercut as white conservatives, who had regained control of the state’s legislature, rewrote Virginia’s constitution in 1902 to restrict civil rights for Black citizens.

“White employers sought to incorporate white workers and offered them certain privileges,” he said. “White workers exercised the privilege of voting, that their African American counterparts [didn’t] have, [to see] that a more rigid racial hierarchy is established in industry.”

With Black Virginians denied the franchise and the white supremacist “Lost Cause” narrative spreading throughout the South, labor organizations became more segregated, matching the society that surrounded them. But Rachleff says the success of Richmond’s Workingmen’s Reform Party shows that wasn’t the only option. 

Details on the tower of Old City Hall.
Old City Hall's clock tower. The building is listed both on the National Registry of Historic Places and as a National Historic Landmark. (Photo: Alex Scribner/VPM News)

“Jim Crow was not organic. African Americans and whites had more contact with each other in the South than in most of the rest of the country,” he said. “So the possibility that white and African American workers might have found a way to recognize each other's humanity and to organize around their shared needs and interests, it would have changed the history of the whole country.”

Black labor persisted in the city well into the 1940’s, with Richmonders including Louise “Mama” Harris and James Jackson, Jr. leading strikes for the segregated Tobacco Laborers and Stemmers Industrial Union. But following the passage of right to work legislation, labor’s power waned.

The State of Right to Work

Since the turn of the millennium, Virginia’s politics have rapidly evolved as formerly reliable Republican suburbs in Central and Northern Virginia have shifted toward the Democratic party. In 2019, Democrats found themselves in total control of state government for the first time since Gov. Douglas Wilder left office in 1994.

Lawmakers used that majority to pass a slew of progressive reforms, including measures to legalize recreational marijuana, abolish the death penalty and increase social support programs. But right to work reform, despite being part of the national party’s platform, has yet to make its way through the General Assembly.

One lawmaker who has spearheaded repeal efforts is Manassas Del. Lee Carter, who describes himself as a Democratic Socialist and is often at odds with party leadership on labor issues.  

“When working people organize and fight together for a better future, they get it,” Carter said in an interview. “This law is aimed at stopping people from organizing and fighting together for that better future.”

Carter, who is currently running for the Democratic nomination for governor, argues Virginia’s right to work laws hurt his party politically by driving down union membership. Garcia, the UNLV professor, says that while unions tend to be aligned with the Democratic party, it’s unclear what political effect the law has.

“If we look at the presidential election map writ large, we see not a causation, per se, but a correlation between states that are right to work and those that have voted Republican,” he said. “But then as you go down the levels, state and local levels, I’m not sure that this correlation holds true.” 

Further muddling Carter’s argument, recent polling on the law shows a majority of Virginians favor keeping it. That doesn’t dissuade Carter or Scott, however, who both point to 2016 when voters nixed a proposal to put right to work provisions into the state constitution.

“There’s only one poll that really matters, and that’s when we vote on it,” Carter said. “That was overwhelmingly rejected.”

Carter says the failed referendum offers proof that most people stand against the law once they look into it and that the polling reflects a lack of knowledge around the issue, a claim Garcia backs.

“Many people have [the idea] that right to work is something that it’s not. That it provides more jobs. That it provides more employment. That it gives employers certain rights to hire and fire people,”  Garcia said. “[That’s] due of course to a lot of very sophisticated marketing for the right to work movement.”

But it’s not simply a lack of public support that’s dragged down repeal efforts. Several state Democrats have also signaled they don’t support repeal, including Richmond Sen. Joe Morrissey. 

“It’s not a matter of whether the people’s politics are in favor of pro-labor reforms or not,” Carter said. “There’s just a small handful of elected leaders left that are afraid of going out on a limb that everyone else is already out on.”

He says the state party fears backlash to progressive policies because it assumes the public is more conservative than it actually is, a problem he argues could be solved through increased political participation. 

“If you’re only voting in November, you’re letting someone else decide who your options are. And so you’re leaving the best possible option off the table,” he said. “If you find the time to spend a couple hours researching candidates in June, then you’re going to have a much better set of choices in November.”

Rachleff says the current lack of support for pro-labor policies isn’t just about politics, but about which stories are kept alive and which are erased. 

“Pseudo historians emerge and they write the stories about the great histories of Richmond, and those histories become all that people hear or know,” he said. “There were other paths than the paths that got followed. And unfortunately, those who chose the paths that were followed ended up eventually erasing that there had been the possibility and even the experience of following that other path.

“When we look at the past this way, it enables us to look at the future in new ways… As we discover that there were other possibilities in the past, we can look for the other possibilities in our present.”

That change of course seems unlikely in the short term. The PRO Act looks set to fall to the filibuster in the U.S. Senate, and with the state legislature adjourned, Virginia’s right to work law appears to have survived another year with a Democratic majority. 

To Carter, the fight over right to work is one the party must resolve. “Looking historically, there’s a lot of precedent for the Democratic Party performing at its best when it is unambiguous about what it stands for.”

To support his claim, Carter points to the example of President Franklin Roosevelt, who threatened to not run for his third term if the party renominated his conservative Vice President, John Nance Garner.

“He sent a letter to the DNC that outright said, ‘The Democratic Party has to choose which side of this fight it's on. Is it going to be a party that fights fully for working people or is it going to be a party that tries to ride the fence? And if it’s a party that tries to ride the fence, I won’t be it’s nominee,’” Carter recounted. “We’re talking about the only person who’s ever won four presidential elections here, so it’s not like there’s any better subject matter expert.”