WARTEL: A Democratic General Assembly is not a victory until right-to-work is repealed

With the power to enact change, will Democrats go full-steam ahead or squander their opportunity?


The election will only mean something if Democrats use this opportunity to fight for working-class people. 

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The 2017 elections in Virginia saw a  blue “wave” which included Democrats winning all three statewode offices and a 15 seat swing in the House of Delegates. Even though that election ended just shy of giving Democrats control of the House of Delegates, it portended the potential that one day Virginia could be a totally blue state, from state legislature to governor. That day has finally come. This year, Democrats won a majority in both the House of Delegates and the State Senate for the first time in 20 years. This victory has set the stage to make significant positive changes to the lives of working-class people in Virginia — however, the election will only mean something if Democrats use this opportunity to fight for working-class people.

There are many important issues on the table now that Democrats can conceivably pass any legislation they want. Teachers deserve raises, medicaid expansion needs protection from work requirements and voting rights have to be expanded to make it easier to vote, including automatic voter registration. Issues like expanding abortion rights, transition to green energy and tearing down confederate statues are also important to address as Democrats move to consolidate their electoral victories into real change. Still, perhaps the central issue at play in all of these is workplace democracy. Due to this reality, Democrats must move to end right-to-work laws.

As I’ve written elsewhere, Virginia has an abysmal record for workers in large part due to right-to-work laws also known as “open shop” laws. These laws allow private sector members to opt out of a union and make it harder to unionize. Additionally, they bar public sector employees from collective bargaining, an essential aspect of any workplace democracy. 

Strengthening unions has to be the essential goal of Virginia Democrats tenure in power because stronger unions will both solidify their victory and help provide material victories for Virginians. They serve as a tool for political struggles in all aspect of people’s lives whereas other issues are often self-contained. Over the last 40 years, Democrats have constantly failed unions across the country. That has contributed to them losing national, state and local offices, allowing Republicans to gut social programs and increase income inequality. When unions are strong, however, they often back Democrats, providing both money and resources that are invaluable to the party. Therefore, a strong labor movement in Virginia only strengthens left wing politicians. 

But unions also serve as a gateway to fighting for broader political questions. Collective bargaining would clearly benefit teachers pay and unions have also played a crucial role in cities like Chicago and states like West Virginia in fighting against understaffed schools and rising healthcare costs. Nationally, some unions have taken a firm stance against Trump’s cruel immigration practices

Moreover, there’s a strong case to be made that unions have the ability to serve as a vanguard of progressive policies on issues that are erroneously seen as separate from the workplace. In Massachusetts, there are unions fighting for abortion rights.It is through unions that individual voices can be channeled as a collective voice to stand against pipelines and for renewable energy. Unions have played roles in pushing for housing legislation like rent control around the country, including recently in California, New Jersey and New York. Given the widespread crisis of affordable housing in Virginia, policies like rent control are desperately needed. 

Of course, it is not a given that Democrats will repeal right-to-work, much less give collective bargaining rights to public sector employees. The soon-to-be senate majority leader is Dick Saslaw, a person who openly stands against organized labor. Even with more progressives than ever before in the legislature, conservative Democrats like Saslaw threaten to throw away the credibility Democrats have built these last few years. 

Current unions, progressive organizations, students and civic organizations need to continue to put pressure on Democrats to pass legislation that benefits the working-class. Democrats may have won on Nov. 5, but the question remains — will working-class Virginians win?

Jake Wartel is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at opinion@cavalierdaily.com.

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