Flexing their new political muscle, the West Virginia Legislature successfully passed two reforms to help move the state forward, then overrode the Governor’s vetoes to make those reforms law.
On Friday, the state Senate and House of Delegates voted to to make Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 4005 law. Governor Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat, vetoed the bills Thursday after lawmakers passed the measures along mostly party lines weeks earlier.
SB 1, the WV Workplace Freedom Act, makes the state the 26th Right to Work state in the nation. West Virginia’s non-union workers had been forced to pay representation fees to unions, join the union outright, or get back into the unemployment line. House Bill 4005 repealed West Virginia’s prevailing wage rates for public construction projects, ensuring that taxpayers get the best bang for their buck and that workers are paid a true wage determined by the free market itself.
The is the second legislative session since Republicans took the statehouse in the 2014 general election. Last year was a learning year, as GOP lawmakers got used to having the legislative reins for the first time in 83 years. Right to Work wasn’t on the agenda, but a prevailing wage repeal was. In the end, the new Republican leadership chose to compromise and develop a better prevailing wage calculation based on Bureau of Labor Statistics. Instead, the Tomblin administration chose to violate the law and go back to the same flawed survey used previously to calculate prevailing wage. During the back and forth between the executive and legislative branches, the state was without a prevailing wage over the summer with no catastrophic results.
Unions have worked since before the 2014 elections trying to fight against this end result. A group of unions led by the WV AFL-CIO formed the political action committee Honest West Virginians in 2014 and spent over $800,000 trying to protect the House of Delegates and state Senate from a Republican takeover. They spent more than any other group that year.
This year they packed the statehouse the night of the State of the State with union activists largely bussed in from surrounding states. They have packed chamber galleries and committee rooms. They have interrupted floor sessions and tried to intimidate lawmakers. A handful of Republicans in the House voted against SB 1 and HB 4005, fearing losing their elections in 2016 in labor-heavy districts. Despite these fearful lawmakers, both chambers had the votes to pass these bills and override the vetoes.
West Virginia has challenges to face. President Obama’s hostility towards coal the last seven years has caused energy producers to jump ship to natural gas earlier than they might have wanted to. Coal companies are laying off workers by the hundreds, as well as declaring bankruptcy. Rail companies, used to full cars of coal, are now rethinking their operations in Appalachia. Plentiful natural gas and domestic oil have also hurt the companies producing these resources. West Virginia needs its energy sector, but it needs more. The state needs a manufacturing revival, and Right to Work can make that happen.
The state’s Commerce Secretary, Keith Burdette, claims no company has asked if we’re a Right to Work state. Why would they? A Google search can tell their site selection teams that, plus no company is going to tell a state “if you become a Right to Work state, we’ll come.” They’re looking for sites, they don’t have time to wait around for a state to get its act together. Now that we are Right to Work, I imagine they’ll be a few companies start popping up on the Commerce Department’s caller I.D. who normally wouldn’t give our business recruiters the time of day.
Unions claim that worker safety is at risk in states with Right to Work and no prevailing wage. Yeah, I imagine worker injury rates do go up since productivity goes up, though statistically speaking they’re at no more risk of injury in a RTW state than they are in a non-RTW state. As far as prevailing wage states, West Virginia’s safety regulations, including requiring OSHA 10 safety training, are still in place. Just because there is no prevailing wage doesn’t mean safety rules go out the window.
Ultimately, the Democrats are trying to maintain their cozy ties to a labor movement they mostly helped destroy. Union membership in West Virginia largely peaked in the 1950s and has gone down since then to 10.6 percent of the state’s shrinking population. Unions have a large degree of control of the state Democratic Party despite being such a small percentage of the state’s population.
Blindly courting the union bosses at the expense of ideas and reforms that will help all of West Virginia’s workers will be their downfall in 2016.