Virginia has come closer to repealing its once-sacred “right-to-work” law than many ever thought possible.
For advocates of repeal, the General Assembly’s decision to kill the measure this year — by not scheduling a vote in a House committee, and passing it by for the year in a Senate committee — is both a disappointment, and a tantalizing look at what might be possible in the future.
For supporters of the law — which bans compulsory union membership — this year’s legislative action is both a relief, and a dread reminder that this issue will come back again.
All this seemed unthinkable just a few years ago, when Republicans held a tight grip on the General Assembly and even Democrats running didn’t dare bad-mouth a law that is regarded by the state’s business community as the cornerstone of Virginia’s economy. That was then. This is now — and the political order in the state has been dramatically rearranged in the Trump era, and not in a way that benefits conservatives.
Actually, some people did think it might be possible to undo the state’s 1947 right-to-work law. They weren’t Democrats, they were Republicans — who perhaps understood better than others the state’s changing demographics that eventually would displace them from the legislature. In 2016, at the behest of then-Del. Dickie Bell, R-Staunton, and state Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham County, the GOP-controlled General Assembly put on the ballot a proposed constitutional amendment that would have enshrined right-to-work in the state’s fundamental law.
Once upon a time that would have been unnecessary. Once upon a time it likely would have passed by a wide margin. But in 2016, the amendment was voted down — a foreshadowing of the political changes to come. Perhaps what was most significant about that referendum, though, wasn’t just the outcome, but the way that outcome was reached.
Since the early 1990s, most elections in Virginia have broken along a familiar geographic pattern —Democrats win in most of the urban crescent and some isolated cities (such as Roanoke) and college towns (such as Blacksburg and Radford) while Republicans hold onto a few conservative suburbs (such as Roanoke County) and run wild in rural areas. The electoral map on the 2016 constitutional amendment about right-to-work looks nothing like anything we’ve seen, though —and therein lie some electoral warnings for Republicans. As expected, the amendment was voted down in the Democratic localities. In Petersburg, the vote was almost 66% no. In Arlington, the vote was almost 63% no. In Roanoke, it was 59% no. And in some Republican localities, there was the expected “yes” vote by wide margins. In Rockingham County, the vote was 60% yes. But that’s where the traditional map breaks down. In much of rural Virginia — otherwise known these days as the Republican heartland — the amendment was rejected. Often the vote was close, but sometimes the margin was shockingly wide. Why would these Republican voters vote against something that has part of Republican Party dogma for so long? The answer likely lies in the changing nature of the Republican coalition. Right-to-work is, indeed, an article of faith in the business wing of the Republican Party. But blue-collar voters in these rural localities likely don’t see much in common with, say, the Chamber of Commerce. It’s a little too glib to say that these are Trump Republicans, because Republicans have been trying to reach out to blue-collar workers going back to the days of “Reagan Democrats” and Richard Nixon’s appeal to “hardhats” and “the silent majority.” In any case, many rural counties in Virginia once routinely voted Democratic. Now they routinely vote Republican. If asked why, those voters likely would say they didn’t leave the Democratic Party, that the Democratic Party left them. On some issues — such as guns — the interests of rural voters do very much align with Republicans. But the right-to-work amendment showed that here was a case where the economic interests of rural voters very much did not align with those of Republicans.
Once you get past places like Arlington and Petersburg, the most emphatic rejection of the right-to-work amendment came not in Democratic localities, but in Republican-voting counties in the coalfields — where unionized coal-mining jobs once were the bedrock the economy. Most of those coal jobs are gone, but fondness for the union may not be. High-tech Loudoun County (now part of the Democratic base) voted 52% against the amendment. But, in Dickenson County, the no vote was 63% — and that wasn’t an aberration. In Lee County and Russell County the no vote was 58%, in Wise County the no vote was 56%. Indeed, only five localities west of Roanoke voted yes — Buchanan, Giles, Scott, Washington and Wythe counties, and in all but Washington County, those votes were quite close. The biggest swath of votes in favor of the right-to-work amendment came in the rural and suburbanizing counties between Roanoke County (55%) and Appomattox County (56%). Bedford County, at 58%, had the second-highest yes vote in the state. But once you get out of that corridor, most of rural Virginia voted no, sometimes decisively so. In Covington and Floyd County, the no vote was 58%. In Alleghany County and Buckingham County, the no vote was 57%. Meanwhile, those same localities were voting overwhelmingly for Trump, so a significant number of Republicans peeled off to vote with Democrats to kill the amendment. Even the district represented by one of the amendment’s sponsors (Bell) voted it down; all five localities he represented from Highland County to Nelson County said “no.”
Every party has contradictions in its coalition. Democrats have a roiling mix of democratic socialists and “corporate Democrats” who don’t see eye-to-eye on how the economy should be run. For Republicans, this is their contradiction — the interests of their traditional corporate backers and the interests of blue-collar voters now part of the GOP coalition are sometimes at odds. The business wing of their party sees the right-to-work law as sacrosanct, but clearly many Republican voters do not. They may not be the party activists who dominate the nominating process, but they do vote. Republican legislators may have gotten off easy when certain Democratic legislators couldn’t bring themselves to vote on right-to-work — because now they won’t have to explain why they voted to keep a law that most of their constituents have clearly said they’re not interested in.