By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 6, 2009
Organized labor is attempting to capitalize on Virginia's shifting political landscape by investing as never before in the race for governor, a gamble union leaders are hoping will bring them leverage in a state that has long resisted their influence.
After helping Barack Obama capture Virginia in last year's presidential race, trade unions are emboldened. They are pouring in millions of dollars and placing armies of volunteers on the ground in the run-up to Tuesday's primary. Union members are making phone calls and staking signs in all parts of the state.
Union officials hope recent elections have brought lasting change and will produce a more labor-friendly administration in Richmond. But as they have become more bold, Democrats have been forced to balance that against their own effort to hold onto the centrist, business-minded voters who helped create their electoral majority.
Organized labor's largest investment has been made to start an early assault on the Republican nominee, Robert F. McDonnell. Unions have injected $1.15 million into the Democratic Governors Association, which has financed an ad campaign designed to define McDonnell as an enemy of working people, even before Democrats have chosen a candidate.
Most of the direct contributions have gone to Terry McAuliffe, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee whose long-standing ties to national unions appear to be paying off. McAuliffe has collected $733,000 from unions, including an unprecedented $600,000 from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. He has also racked up a half-dozen labor endorsements.
His opponents, former state delegate Brian Moran of Alexandria and R. Creigh Deeds, a state senator from Bath County, have amassed a small fraction of that. Moran has collected $31,000; Deeds, $16,000. But they, too, have collected their share of endorsements.
"We see this election as an opportunity for unions to have a seat at the table," said John Niemiec, president of the Fairfax County Professional Fire Fighters and Paramedics, which has endorsed McAuliffe.
Despite such pronouncements, labor's presence in Virginia politics has required some fancy footwork by the unions and those they support. The state's most popular Democrats, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner, have succeeded with a centrist, pro-business message. Democratic candidates this year say they are not abandoning that. But Republicans have pounced, saying union-backed Democrats will erode the state's business-friendly environment.
Last year, 4.1 percent of Virginia workers were union members, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only three states ranked lower: North Carolina (3.5 percent), Georgia (3.7 percent) and South Carolina (3.9 percent).
The debate might shape the role of unions in elections -- and Virginia policy -- for years to come.
Robert D. Holsworth, a political scientist and author of the blog VirginiaTomorrow, said the ground is shifting. "More people in Virginia consider themselves Democrats than Republicans," he said. "Most people are in the center. Do people consider unions a big threat? I think it's not so clear anymore."
Union activists have long been present in state politics, donating and providing elbow grease for Democratic candidates by knocking on doors, making calls and distributing leaflets. But there is ample evidence that this year is different. Beyond donations and endorsements, the three candidates have presented much more public support for unions than have past candidates.
In January, the three visited a picket line at the Hilton Crystal City at Reagan National Airport. And then there's the discussion of the Employee Free Choice Act, legislation before Congress that would allow unions to gain recognition by getting a majority of workers to sign cards indicating their support.
It is a contentious proposal and one that most business organizations oppose -- including many in business-friendly Virginia. McDonnell, who will face the winner of Tuesday's primary, has pressed all three candidates to stake out a position on the "job-killing" card-check bill, which would eliminate the need for secret balloting to organize workers. And he has made much of their refusal to do so, even producing a video making light of it.
McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin said the issue offers evidence of union pressure and labor's increasing sway in a right-to-work state, which prohibits agreements between trade groups and employers that would require union dues as a condition of employment.
"In a right-to-work state, that puts them more in line with their national union benefactors than voters of this state," Martin said.
Democrats and union leaders reject the characterization. They say the card-check issue is moot in Virginia because Congress appears unlikely to approve it in its current form. They say McDonnell is trying to scare voters by suggesting that union gains will cost jobs or create an unfriendly business environment.
Delacey Skinner, a spokeswoman for McAuliffe, said Kaine and Warner succeeded largely on their ability to balance business concerns with an eye for worker protections.
"They've done it by keeping the tax burden low, making sure regulatory changes are sensible and understandable and not overly burdensome, but at the same time looking out for workers, the environment," she said. "And I think the strength of the Democratic Party in Virginia is in exactly that tension."
Through Tuesday, hundreds of union volunteers are expected to help the campaigns push voters to the polls. And once a Democratic nominee emerges, the battle over what the unions want from Virginia -- and whether voters want it, too -- will continue.
"They're not going to reverse the Virginia right-to-work law," Holsworth said. "But McDonnell will try to show that unions are excessively powerful and threatening, something that has not been the case in Virginia. Certainly, the business community is very, very concerned about card-check. What I'm not so sure about is whether it's going to drive the vote of rank-and-file Virginians."