By Kathryn Watson | Watchdog.org, Virginia Bureau
ALEXANDRIA — As Americans everywhere celebrate work by taking a day off from it, the future of worker freedom in the Old Dominion isn’t set in stone. And some Virginia lawmakers want to make sure it is.
Virginia has long touted its status as a right to work state,meaning a person a person can’t be denied a job or fired for not joining a labor union. But the law, despite its sacred status among Republicans and many Democrats, has never made it into the safety net of Virginia’s Constitution.
And as disagreements over the role of labor unions highlight the 2013 race for governor, the life and death of a law can hinge on who holds power. Lawmakers say the law is strong and safe for now — but that isn’t a guarantee for future generations.
“I think it’s important because the right-to -ork law, as great as it is — and I’m glad we have it — it’s statute and it’s always subject to change,” said Delegate Richard “Dickie” Bell, who attempted in both the 2012 and 2013 sessions to pass legislation that would begin the uphill battle of enshrining the law in the state’s constitution.
“An administrative change or someone with opposing views to right to work, with the right numbers in place, could overturn it,” Bell said. “I don’t think that’ll happen in Virginia in my lifetime, but the possibility does exist. If we make it a part of the constitution, it becomes much more permanent. And undoing it would be very difficult, if not impossible.”
But, nearly as impossible is etching something into Virginia’s Constitution. The Old Dominion requires both the Senate and House of Delegates pass a bill in two separate legislative cycles, with an election in between those passages. Then, that bill has to go to the people for a vote at the ballot box. Only then can something be added to the constitution.
Others tried to get right-to-work language into the state constitution long before Bell’s 2012 attempt — unsuccessfully. But Bell, along with Sen. Richard Black, who also filed a similar bill in the Senate in 2013, isn’t giving up. The freedom to work, they say, is that important for Virginia workers and the state’s economy.
“When I think of all the things that make Virginia stand out as a business-friendly state, the right-to-work law is probably at the top of the list,” Black said. “It creates a very favorable work environment, which provides additional jobs for people that come from other states.”
Bell said the evidence favoring right-to-work states like Virginia speaks for itself — and for the need to solidify that law. States with right-to-work laws fared better in the recession, with lower unemployment rates. And the American Enterprise Institute points out that right-to-work states created four times as many jobs as non right-to-work states since from 2009 to 2012.
“We see industry and business expanding in those states and we see businesses and industry located in union-dominated states relocating to right-to-work states,” Bell said.
Still, strengthening the law is a marathon — not a sprint.
“I don’t know how long it will take, but I think the evidence is slowly but surely becoming overwhelming that we need to protect that against anything that might alter it,” Bell said.
Black said he’s still considering filing another bill for the 2014 session. Bell said he’ll have to wait another year, since the constitutional amendment process requires an election in the middle.
“I will wait until the 2015 session, but I do plan to reintroduce it,” Bell said. “And I plan to fight that battle until we win.”
Contact Kathryn Watson at [email protected].