Virginia public workers lost their right first in a 1977 state Supreme Court ruling and then in a 1993 law ushered in by Democratic Gov. Douglas Wilder. Until the Wisconsin vote, the only other states with similar bans were North Carolina and Texas.
Typically, the conservative movement has pointed to Virginia as an example of how a state can have a decent school system without labor unions. They have denigrated Wisconsin’s unionized teachers, although Wisconsin’s students score better than Virginia’s on some placement tests while kids in the Old Dominion do better on others.
True to form, Republican Gov. Robert F. McDonnell has been on national media outlets such as PBS NewsHour using the ban on public bargaining as a way to bash labor in general. He said: “We banned collective bargaining for public sector employees 20 years ago. And it’s given me in Virginia a great opportunity to trumpet our state as a great place to do business.”
Besides the public employee ban, Virginia is a “right to work” state, which means workers cannot be forced to join a union as a condition of employment. The practice dates back to the days, mostly in the South, when big manufacturing firms, such as textiles, wanted to keep unions out and wages low so they could steal factories from the North and Midwest.
What does the ban mean to public workers such as teachers? To find out, I spoke with Kitty Boitnott, head of the 60,000-member Virginia Education Association. She says teachers are stuck with the law and are used to having few rights.
The issue comes up mostly when teachers move to Virginia from elsewhere. “In other states, everything is bargained, from whether you can eat lunch away from school to how much break time you get. Our contracts simply say you’e hired for a year and you may be expected to do other duties as assigned, such as work with the PTA or at Saturday festivals.”
New teachers, especially from industrialized states like Michigan, find themselves scratching their heads when they arrive in the Old Dominion, she adds.