(Paul Nyden, a long-time West Virginia labor reporter, will occasionally be contributing to the Teamster Nation blog about issues before the state’s Legislature. His latest report follows.)
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The West Virginia State Senate voted this week to approve a so-called right-to-work (RTW) bill. The vote, 17 to 16, was strictly across party lines. The bill will now go to the House of Delegates, which has 64 Republicans and 36 Democrats.
Ken Hall, president of Teamsters Local 175 in South Charleston and the union’s International Secretary-Treasurer, said after the Senate vote on Thursday, “This is going to be the most divisive piece of legislation that’ll be passed in my lifetime.” He previously testified against the bill.
The Senate vote would likely have been tied, 17 to 17, if Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) had been able to make his own choice to replace Senate Majority Whip Daniel J. Hall (R).
In 2012, Daniel Hall was elected to the Senate as a Democrat from Wyoming and Raleigh counties, which are heavily Democratic. After his election, Daniel Hall switched to become a registered Republican, which he had been before. That gave the Senate a Republican majority of 18 to 16.
In late December, Daniel Hall announced he was resigning from the Senate to take a job with the National Rifle Association.
Although he planned to appoint a Democrat, Tomblin said he would abide by a ruling from the Supreme Court about this issue. On Friday, the Supreme Court ruled Tomblin had to name a Republican to the seat, even though voters had chosen a registered Democrat.
The House of Delegates, very likely to pass this bill, will take up the issue this week. Tomblin has indicated he will veto the bill, but a veto can be overruled by a simple majority vote in the Senate. If it were a tied vote, his veto would stand.
Thursday’s debate in the state Senate was often quite contentious. Several Democrats made strong statements opposing the bill. Meanwhile, Sen. Robert L. Karnes (R) began yelling and attacking union members sitting in the chamber’s balconies at the Capitol.
Sherri Moore McKinney, an organizer for SEIU District 1199, stated on her Facebook page that she had “witnessed one of the most disgusting displays of unprofessional, disrespectful conduct on the floor of the West Virginia Senate that I have witnessed in more than 22 years of being there.
“Sen. Karnes referred to the hard working citizens, union members and voters (in the gallery of the Senate) as free loaders. Shame on you, Sen. Barnes, Your disgusting words will never be forgotten.”
Sen. Jeffrey V. Kessler (D) said many supporters of RTW don’t understand that under federal law a union must represent every worker in a given workplace.
If a worker decides not to join a union and pay dues, as allowed under the bill the Senate just passed, then “at the end of the day you are getting benefits you don’t have to pay for,” Kessler said. “This bill encourages breaking up unions for political reasons.”
Union contracts, Kessler also pointed out, routinely guarantee workers health insurance coverage, retirement benefits and greater workplace safety.
Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson, called the legislation “the most divisive bill I have ever seen. It is nothing but an illusion.” He added, “When other states went to right-to-work, wages went down by 17 percent. It also hurts health-care plans and pension plans. This is for your children and for your grandchildren.”
Meanwhile, the House next week is expected to begin debate on legislation to abolish prevailing wages for construction workers. The Senate plans to take up the bill after a House vote.
Steve White, executive director of the Affiliated Construction Trades Foundation based in Charleston, opposed similar legislation proposed in the Legislature last February.
He pointed to a study released in January 2015 by Dr. Michael P. Kelsay from the University of Missouri in Kansas City that found prevailing wage would:
- Cost West Virginia residents and their families between $51.3 million and $77.3 million a year in lost wages.
- Cost the state between $1.4 million and $2.2 million a year in lost sales taxes and between $3.1 million and $4.6 million in lost income taxes.
- Create a total economic loss between $44.8 million and $84.1 million annually.
This year, the Republican Party has placed both these issues at the top of their legislative agenda. The proposed legislation to create a right-to-work law and end prevailing wages is sure to generate continued controversy in coming weeks and months.
The Teamsters will continue the fight against these measures. “Right-to-work and prevailing wage won’t help everyday West Virginians, they’ll only further enrich out-of-state corporate interests pushing for their passage,” a union spokesman said. “Lawmakers need to remember their constituents as they consider these measures.”