Digging Deeper: By Dan Heyman
Charleston, WV – Republicans in state government are pinning their election hopes to legal changes they say are boosting economic growth. But members of West Virginia’s labor movement say a Right-to-Work law and similar provisions are forcing them to pay for people who want to “get something for nothing.”
Right-to-Work laws say a worker can be covered by a union contract without paying union dues. Half of states have them, most dating from the late 40’s through the mid-50’s. After the GOP took over the legislature, it passed 2016’s “West Virginia Workplace Freedom Act.” The impact of the law has been limited by legal challenges, but it is now taking full effect.
Brian Lester is based in Nitro, and he’s a member of Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 625. He says for him and his brothers and sisters in the construction unions, collective bargaining means a lot more than higher pay. He says the safety training, the apprenticeships and the drug testing may even be more important than the money, “because the union is always fighting for a safe workplace, for good working conditions and making sure we can go home to our families at the end of the day.”
He says,“for someone to just expect to come in and get that for nothing and not pay their dues, it’s not right. We all try to put our hand on the plow to make things work. And for someone to have that type of contract and representation and not have to put nothing into it. That’s just unfair.”
Senate President Mitch Carmichael credited “pro-growth” polices passed by the Republican led-legislature for an “economic resurgence in West Virginia like never before,” in an Op Ed where he declared “West Virginia is America's 'Comeback Kid.”
Carmichael has also repeatedly taken credit for the teachers and public employee pay raises passed earlier this year. That in spite of the fact that Carmichael himself led the most important opposition to the raises school employees when on strike to win. And Carmichael has described the pay increases as the largest in state history when, depending on how it’s measured, the 1990 raises (also the result of a teachers’ strike) was larger.
The state of the state’s economy looks to be central to GOP’s hopes to hold the legislature. But in fact, according to the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policies, job growth in the state has been less than half as fast as the national average. And according to federal figures, West Virginia still has the 49th worst unemployment rate.
“They’re putting lipstick on a pig,” according to Local 625 Pipefitter James Robinette of St. Albans. He says the descriptions of a booming West Virginia economy are “just smoke and mirrors.”
“Wages are well below national average,” he says. “I don't see any thriving economy here. There's car lots. Everyone has plenty of used cars on them, but nobody's buying them. Nobody's making enough money to survive.”
Robinette is running for the House of Delegates from the 35th district. He says the anti-union policies coming from the legislature in the last few years have just opened West Virginia to low wage, low quality companies coming in from out of state.
He points to a new chemical plant union being built in his district. “There is not one local man on that job. People there from Texas and Louisiana doing that work. We’ve got plenty of good union hands right here in West Virginia that could go down and work and man that job. But they’re not.”
He says “they give these contracts to out-of-state contractors that are bottom dollar.”
When Right-to-Work was being debated at the legislature supporters argued it would increase job growth by a full percent, because it would improve the state’s business climate. But according to a recent study from the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, the laws have little or no impact on the number of jobs, and have a downward pressure on wages.
Lester blames union busting for the decline in the American Middle class. He points out that almost a third of U.S. workers belonged to a union four decades ago. Now he says it’s closer to ten percent.
“You know there's more billionaires in this country now than they've ever been. But everyone else is being left behind.”
He says that makes the whole economy weaker, because there are fewer and fewer consumers able to buy the products businesses want to sell.
“It's like your bank account – if you keep taking out and not putting anything back in it's very likely going to be insufficient.”
Andy Walters is I'm the Secretary Treasurer for West Virginia AFL-CIO. He puts it simply.
“The wages go down if you don't have the collective bargaining. And you don't have the pensions or health insurance or safety training or the job skills training that goes along with it.”
He says for years, unions have helped set the market rate and employment conditions for skilled work. He says legislation like Right-to-Work is designed to undermine organized labor’s ability to do that.
“What they don't tell you about Right-to-Work is that just because that member drops out they still enjoy the wages, benefits, and protection of the Union for a fee that we're not even sure of.”
He says “It's not fair for that union to have to represent a person that's not paying to be in that union, who still gets to enjoy everything that goes along with collective bargaining.”
Robinette describes the union jobs as “the gold standard,” but he says there are good reasons for that.
“After a five year apprenticeship, We'll go against anybody. Union workers set the bar – yeah, we’re higher paid but we're also higher skilled. These guys are more qualified than anybody out there.”
Dan Heyman has been covering West Virginia politics and policy for more than two decades. He likes dogs but has trouble keeping kudzu from swallowing everything he owns. For more of Dan's WV Strong content, click here.