Seeking Solidarity: Right-to-Work and the Right of Work

cropped-a027c-asp2bbanner1This article shall offer some guidance on the issue of the “Right to Work” amendment currently on the ballot for a constitutional amendment in Virginia.

Should Article I of the Constitution of Virginia be amended to prohibit any agreement or combination between an employer and a labor union or labor organization whereby (i) nonmembers of the union or organization are denied the right to work for the employer, (ii) membership to the union or organization is made a condition of employment or continuation of employment by such employer, or (iii) the union or organization acquires an employment monopoly in any such enterprise?

This is an interesting question. Statutorily, Virginia already has a law banning compulsory union membership. The question now is whether this law should be a constitutional protection in Virginia. Before getting into the question of labor and unions, we should first examine why a constitutional amendment is deemed necessary.

According to Rep. Richard P. Bell, “The right to work — just like the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — is fundamental, and it deserves constitutional protection.” According to The League of Women Voters, “A constitutional amendment would ensure that future General Assemblies cannot easily change Virginia’s status as a right-to-work state….A constitutional amendment, approved at an election, shows the direct will of the people, not just that of legislators.”

These are worthy considerations. It is certainly logical to say that, since labor flows from man and is the prime source of his support and sustenance, his ability to work should not be infringed upon. The common analogy I use to determine if a certain practice or law concerning labor is just is whether it would seem reasonable were the person in question in possession of his own land and means to produce a livelihood from that land. It would seem that Right to Work is a law that is very pro-life by ensuring that every citizen has the ability to seek the work they desire and thrive in it. It seems worthy for the State to guarantee these protections. Therefore, it is also logical to ensure that such protection is not easily changed and comes from the workers themselves and not their representatives since these latter have often shown themselves to be the puppets of interest groups. Yet, if the Virginian worker believes he must have this protection in nigh perpetuity through the examination of his own life and those of his neighbors, then it seems not only natural but good that such a measure passes.

Yet, such a judgment would be hasty. As the League of Women Voters points out, “A constitutional amendment does not allow for timely modifications.” In essence, a constitutional amendment would prevent a certain type of agreement between businesses and employees. Paradoxically, it actually violates the right of workers to unionize and collectively bargain by removing a possible avenue of bargaining and unionization. Delegate Jeion Ward said, “Building the New Virginia Economy requires a healthy, viable workforce that is paid a livable wage, guaranteed equal pay for equal work, and has access to affordable health care – not needlessly elevating existing law to the state Constitution that hurts Virginia’s workers.”

It is true that this is already the law. What actually seems to be the issue is a lack of confidence in the opposing party to defend the current law when challenged. So while a measure to ensure that unions remain free associations rather than mandatory clubs to enter a trade may seem in line with the ideals of supporting the rights of the worker, this measure specifically is simply elevating current statutory law to a more unassailable constitutional law.

There are real and pressing issues facing the Virginian worker, and this is not one of them. When challenges to the law occur, perhaps then there can be a discussion about Right to Work. Yet, since there is no challenge to the law and there has not been in the decades long history of the law, there is little impetus to support this constitutional measure.

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The ASP supports the right of workers to freely associate and unionize in order to come to amicable and mutually beneficial agreements with their employers. We are inspired, in part, by a trade union and have the rights of workers as a central principle. Yet, because our inspiration is from the first non-government trade union in Poland, we also believe no one should be denied work solely because he chooses not to join a union. Neither undermining unions nor the individual worker benefits society. This current measure on the VA ballot for November is not a pressing issue for labor and currently appears to be a vanity project against a dwindling part of the Virginian labor force. While we are not explicitly against this measure, we do not think it is an issue most pressing to the Virginian worker today. We believe that the General Assembly would be better served by introducing fairer standards for maternity and paternity leave, methods to close the wage gap, and amicable legislation to protect a worker’s right to a living wage.

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