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Survey Finds Diminished Democratic Support for Right-to-Work Law

Man running forklift in factory
(Photo: Martin Howard/Creative Commons)

A majority of Democratic lawmakers polled by the Virginia Chamber of Commerce say they oppose the state’s right-to-work law.

That growing consensus appears to mark a major shift on a law long seen as a sacred cow in Virginia politics.

Dozens of Democratic candidates skipped the question or did not respond to the Chamber’s annual survey. But a majority answered, and all but three candidates in the House of Delegates and four in the Senate said they did not support the law. Most of the candidates who said they oppose the law were either incumbents in safe Democratic districts or challengers with no legislative record.

In right-to-work states, workers can’t be forced to join a union when they accept a job. Virginia is one of 26 states with a law or constitutional amendment on the books.

The bill's proponents, which include all of the Republican candidates who answered the question, argue that it protects workers’ personal choice and helps the economy. Critics say the law is misleadingly named and allows workers to profit from negotiations conducted by dues-paying union members.

In 2016, Virginia voters rejected a GOP-led ballot initiative to enshrine the law in the Virginia Constitution by a 54% to 46% vote. Then-House Minority Leader David Toscano argued against an amendment in a constituent newsletter, saying that “there is no pressing need” for action since the issue “has never been seriously questioned.”

Enter Democratic Del. Lee Carter (D-Manassas), a self-described socialist elected in 2017 who sponsored a bill to repeal the law this year.

Carter said that before the 2017 wave, “even a lot of the Democrats that were not particularly fond of big business interests to begin with would generally keep their mouths shut about it because they were afraid of the consequences.”

Carter said that his action helped encourage his new, more left-leaning group of Democrats elected that year to join ranks.

“We’ll just keep having this fight over and over again until people standing in front of it get tired of explaining why they’re standing in front of it,” Carter said.

That likely includes some powerful Democrats; Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw didn’t respond to VPM’s request for comment but told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that the law is “not going to disappear” should Democrats take control of the chamber. House minority leader Eileen Filler-Corn didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Spokespersons for the House and Senate caucuses said lawmakers hadn’t taken a collective position on the issue.

Republicans, however, have remained unified against any changes.

“Repealing Virginia's Right to Work law would be a disaster for Virginia workers and businesses,” said Parker Slaybaugh, spokesperson for GOP Speaker of the House Kirk Cox.

The Times-Dispatch reported last month that Gov. Ralph Northam declined Virginia AFL-CEO President Doris Crouse-Mays’ request for the governor to sign a future bill overturning the law.

Crouse-Mays was not available for an interview but said in a statement that change was overdue, pointing to a recent Oxfam study that ranked Virginia as the worst state for workers.

“Virginia’s working class is in dire need for an agenda that values Virginia’s workers, our safety, and our livelihoods,” Crouse-Mays said.