Lawmakers may be in a race this winter to see whether West Virginia or neighboring Kentucky becomes the 26th right-to-work state.
The Republicans who control both houses of the West Virginia Legislature appear likely to introduce a right-to-work bill — which would let workers choose whether to pay labor unions — in January.
Because the Legislature could override a veto with a simple majority in each house, Republicans could make West Virginia a right-to-work state by March even if Democrats voted in lockstep against it.
West Virginia’s economy suggests state labor laws are in desperate need of reform. From January 2011 through August, West Virginia’s private-sector job growth ranked dead last among the 50 states.
Though recent Environmental Protection Agency rules crippling the coal industry have made things worse, slow job growth in West Virginia is nothing new; from January 1995 through August, the state’s private-sector job growth ranked 44th.
In a September poll, West Virginia MetroNews found 60 percent support for right-to-work among likely voters.
West Virginia House Speaker Tim Armstead and Senate President Bill Cole expressed support for right-to-work Sunday after a local economist shared findings from a study of the policy’s likely impacts.
It’s not entirely clear Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat who is term-limited in 2016, would veto a right-to-work bill if it were sent to his desk.
Since breaking a decades-long Democratic stranglehold in the West Virginia Legislature in 2014, Republicans have worked with Tomblin to change laws favoring union bosses at the expense of workers and taxpayers.
Tomblin signed a bill in May loosening the grip of construction unions by ending mandatory “project labor agreements” for contractors — but he has tussled with Republicans over the calculation of “prevailing wages” used for public projects.
Chris Stadelman, Tomblin’s communications director, told Watchdog the governor “does not believe West Virginia needs a right-to-work law.”
“Right-to-work has been discussed for a number of years, although Gov. Tomblin has never had a company cite that as a significant issue when considering whether to invest in West Virginia, and the state continues to see new and expanding businesses locate here,” Stadelman said.
Stadelman did not comment on whether Tomblin would veto a right-to-work bill.
Garrett Ballengee, executive director of West Virginia’s free-market Cardinal Institute, told Watchdog the state’s voters “are tired of the status quo in West Virginia, as it leads to mediocrity at best and embarrassment at worst.”
While many West Virginians see right-to-work as a driver of economic growth in the South, union-backed interest groups are against letting workers opt out of paying unions, Ballengee said.
“Labor leaders will be especially hesitant to change the status quo as they’re the primary beneficiaries of the way things are,” Ballengee noted.
Keith Pauley, chairman of the Cardinal Institute board of directors, said it’s “just not fair” to require any West Virginian to pay a union to have a job.
“Very few workers in West Virginia actually voted to join a union. Their parents didn’t even vote to join a union. It was actually their grandparents who unionized their workplace,” Pauley wrote in an email to Watchdog.
Pauley said Indiana’s implementation of right-to-work and Kentucky’s passage of right-to-work at the local level in 12 counties serve as examples for West Virginia.
In Kentucky — West Virginia’s neighbor to the west — Governor-elect Matt Bevin promised during his campaign to fight for right-to-work, but majority Democrats in the Kentucky House have blocked the policy in previous sessions.
Facilitated by a state-level Republican resurgence under President Obama, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin have implemented right-to-work since 2012.