West Virginia Supreme Court Ruling Paves Way for Right-to-Work

West Virginia Supreme Court Ruling Paves Way for Right-to-Work

(Photo: Flickr/David Wilson)
 

A complicated political brawl in West Virginia came to a head Friday when the state’s highest court issued a ruling that all but ensures the passage of so-called right-to-work legislation there. The bill would ban unions in the private sector from requiring membership or dues as a condition of employment.

In its ruling Friday, the state supreme court ordered Governor Earl Ray Tomblin to appoint a Republican to fill a key state senate vacancy. The ruling concludes one chapter in a drama triggered by state senator Daniel Hall’s decision in the middle of the term to switch parties from Democrat to Republican, only to resign earlier this month. The state high court’s ruling essentially cements the GOP’s one-seat, veto-proof majority in the state senate.

The decision disappointed Democrats and the state’s labor unions, who had been relying on the state Supreme Court as their last chance to stop Republicans’ legislative push to pass right-to-work legislation, which labor allies say is merely an attack on unions. Last week the state Senate passed right-to-work legislation along party lines, and the Republican-controlled House is poised to vote on and presumably approve the bill in short order.  

The political push to make West Virginia a right-to-work state comes at a perilous time for the national labor movement as the United States Supreme Court is considering a case that would ban public sector unions from collecting mandatory fees from non-members, creating a potential for the right-to-work movement to spread into government employment. Court-watchers widely anticipate that the bench will rule against unions.

Though Governor Tomblin, a Democrat, has threatened to veto the bill, Republicans only need a simple majority in both chambers to override that veto. If the Supreme Court had ruled to give Democrats the authority to fill Hall’s vacant seat, Democrats could have then killed an override attempt in the state senate, and could have stopped right-to-work from becoming law.

West Virginia has the highest unemployment rates in the county and has struggled to rebound from economic downturns. Once a labor stronghold thanks to a booming coal mining industry, the state has seen its union power wane as its main industry tanked.

Seizing on the political opportunity, Republicans have made right-to-work a top priority in the current legislative session, arguing that the law would be a boon for business and for employment growth. The policy push has been aided by a “who’s who” of the conservative right: the state’s Chamber of Commerce, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and the Heritage Foundation.

However, multiple liberal-leaning economic groups have discredited research the GOP and its allies have used to push the bill, pointing to faulty methodology and to the impossibility of singling out the impact of right-to-work on state economies.

Labor advocates say that right-to-work laws are thinly-veiled attempts to lower worker wages, increase corporate bottom-lines, and decimate unions all in one fell swoop.

“No matter how many studies you look at, there’s nothing that proves being a right to work state attracts employers,” Ken Hall, general secretary and treasurer of the Teamsters Union, told the Register-Herald. “This is not an issue that is good for West Virginia. This is absolutely, clearly being promoted by out-of-state interests, wealthy people and corporations to increase their profit.”

Republicans counter that right-to-work laws stimulate the economy. “States that have passed [right-to-work] have signaled to potential employers that they want job growth in their state and [West Virginia] is in no position to turn away this growth,” the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce said. “New and innovative policies are necessary to compete in today’s job market and if [right-to-work] has an impact, we need to pass it.”

If West Virginia Republicans succeed, the state will become the 26th in the nation to sanction right-to-work laws—meaning that more than half the nation’s legislatures have embraced anti-union policies.

This story has been updated.