Commentary: Why change the constitution?

In addition to the other important electoral choices Virginians are deciding this November, we are faced with changing the Virginia state constitution by adding anti-union language. This proposed amendment wound its way through the state legislature over a period of years, and regards the right-to-work law, a Virginia statute since 1947. This revision is being pushed forward by several Republican state legislators.

The label, right to work, is misleading, since it does not help employees find work. Instead it adds an amendment to the state constitution to make it harder for future General Assemblies to undo the already existing law. There have been no challenges to the current law, and many question the need for an amendment since it is already state law.

The existing law bans employers from requiring union membership as a condition of employment. The Wagner Act instituted in 1935 sought to allow collective bargaining as well as setting up a National Labor Relations Board, and allowed closed shops. This legislation was an attempt to provide protection for workers against exploitation and provide better conditions for employees in the wake of the excesses that contributed to the Great Depression. The right to work law was passed as a state level reaction to the Taft-Hartley Act enacted in 1947.

The Wagner Act and accompanying legislation were part of the New Deal, which set the stage for unprecedented post-World War II growth and prosperity and the blossoming of the middle class. At the beginning of the 20th century, excesses like child labor, unlimited work hours, and unsafe working environments were all commonplace. Instead of being forced to exist in the conditions created by employers, collective bargaining gave the working man a say in his work life and greatly improved countless lives. Workers were finally recognized for their contribution, instead of being treated as just another disposable material resource. As time wore on, workers were further able to create a level playing field and attained wages that allowed the abundance of the mid-20th century American culture.

Why the need for this amendment, especially when the election process is expected to be heavily burdened in this election cycle due to high voter interest? The existing law has been in effect for four decades, but once placed into the state constitution, it would not be possible to modify it in a timely fashion. The efficiency of the right-to-work-laws are supported by some with studies showing that it attracts business. On the other hand, there are opposing studies saying that allowing employees freedom to a strictly union shop increases productivity and quality.

This attack on workers continues the tradition of Republicans and corporations teaming up to chip away at worker’s rights that reached a low point under the Reagan administration when striking flight controllers were summarily dismissed instead of bargaining to remedy stressful conditions that could impact public safety. This amendment erodes union’s power to represent labor in its lopsided struggle against corporations. As a result, all workers find their wages, insurance and safety impacted.

Workers already have the choice to not become a union member, even though they benefit by the union’s work to improve wages and conditions. It also removes a company’s ability to require union laborers who may be better suited for a particular type of work.

To subject workers to a partisan attempt at the whim of business is a slap at workers in our state. When workers are faced with the gnawing reality of making ends meet, and too many face the stark reality of having to work multiple jobs while juggling family responsibilities like child care, rent and putting food on their families’ tables, should we restrict their ability to have a voice in their future? When the economic balance is set to favor corporate profits instead of family life, and profits rule over all other considerations, is this an acceptable outcome?

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce favors the right to work because they want a “better business environment,” and they also call raising the minimum wage a distraction. Last year, Forbes Magazine had an article titled, “The Decline Of Unions Is A Middle Class Problem.” Numerous economists have noted the downward effect of fewer union members on wages. Meanwhile, CEO pay has ballooned to 373 times the average worker’s salary.

Doesn’t providing more wages for workers provide the ability to spend and create stimulus at the ground level? How does this amendment improve most Virginians’ lives? I am voting no.

Steve Foreman is a Front Royal resident.