Labor Unions Push to Expand Their Influence in Virginia

By Sandhya Somashekhar and Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, March 8, 2009

Organized labor has long gotten a cold reception in Virginia, but national unions are making an unprecedented push to expand their presence in the state, contributing huge sums to Democratic candidates and attempting to organize government employees as layoffs loom.

The unions have played a major role in local races, including making a $50,000 contribution to Fairfax County Supervisor Sharon Bulova's campaign for board chairman. And they are preparing to dedicate significant resources to this year's hotly contested campaign for governor.

Last fall, three large labor unions wrote separate six-figure checks to the Virginia Democratic Party, among the largest contributions to the party in at least a dozen years. Labor donations accounted for about half of the $1.3 million the state Democratic Party collected between July 1 and Dec. 31.

"If you are going to spend that much money on campaigns, you are not trying to maintain the status quo," said Del. Christopher B. Saxman (R-Staunton).

That is clear in Northern Virginia, where the Service Employees International Union has launched an effort to organize public employees. About 275 workers have joined the burgeoning government workers union in Fairfax, where the SEIU-affiliated group will fight a proposal to eliminate more than 500 county jobs.

Republicans and some business leaders said they worry that the recent activity is setting the stage for a broader effort to repeal laws that have secured the state's reputation as one of the most business-friendly in the country. Virginia is one of 22 "right to work" states, where employees cannot be compelled to join their company union.

Virginia is also one of only two states that ban collective bargaining for public employees, the other being North Carolina. Elsewhere, unions are able to represent workers in contract negotiations.

Labor leaders said they are not aiming for a large-scale shift in state law, but they are hoping for less-drastic policy changes. They said they will push hard to elect a Democratic governor and help Democrats take control of the House of Delegates. If they are successful, they plan to seek reforms to the state's workers' compensation program and secure a higher minimum wage.

"I think each union wants something a little different," said Tom Hucker, a political coordinator for the Laborers' International Union of North America. "Every union is aware of the political changes in Virginia and hopeful that a more receptive environment is emerging in the state for working families and the labor movement in particular."

SEIU is making a powerful statement in Fairfax, the state's most populous jurisdiction and one that has tipped the scales in favor of Democrats in recent years. Although fewer than 300 have signed up thus far, more than 8,500 government workers are eligible to join. Organizers say interest has picked up since county officials began contemplating hundreds of job cuts to help close a $650 million hole in the budget.

Joseph Wilhelm, an assistant project manager in the Facilities Management Department, said he had been turned off by unions in the past but has come to see the Fairfax County Government Employees Union as the best way to have a voice in the upcoming budget negotiations and to prevent layoffs.

"I would be willing to take a small cut in pay if it meant saving jobs," said Wilhelm, 44. "I think there might be a lot of people who feel that way."

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