The passage of the Establishing West Virginia Workplace Freedom Act comes two years after Republicans took back the state House for the first time since 1928, and days after the state’s Supreme Court handed control of the evenly divided Senate to Republicans as well. The bill's main sponsor is Republican Senate President Bill Cole, who has declared a run to replace Tomblin.
West Virginia follows Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, which in recent years have passed right-to-work laws. Union membership has dipped precipitously in Wisconsin. While membership ticked up Michigan in 2015, and is higher than when Indiana went right-to-work in 2012, that is likely due in large part to the recovery of the automobile and construction industries.
It’s a dramatic reversal for a state with as militant a labor legacy as West Virginia, and debate was raw with emotion about the current fate of coal miners whose once-powerful union has been vastly diminished from the height of its power in the 1930s. The United Mine Workers of America, 800,000 members strong then, has now dwindled to fewer than 10,000 active miners.
“Those folks set the gold standard for what miners would be paid, what kind of safety they would have in their workplace,” said Del. Nancy Guthrie, who represents the district where one of the earliest coal miner uprisings took place. "Those are all things that we fight for on a daily basis. And today, what we are about to do is turn our back on that proud history.”
Proponents of the bill argued that with the state’s economy in terrible condition, posting some of the worst poverty and unemployment rates in the country, West Virginia ought to follow its neighbors to the south in adopting a policy that large employers sometimes see as a virtue when shopping for new locations. They cited a study commissioned by the Republican legislature from an economist at West Virginia University that found adopting a right-to-work law could reduce union membership in the state by one-fifth, and boost the state’s employment by 0.4 percent.
"It’s not a silver bullet. It’s a piece of the puzzle, perhaps,” said Republican Del. Lynwood Ireland, who spoke sadly of the decline of the state’s chemical industry. “Quite frankly, as I try to figure out whether I’m going to punch red or green, I’m going to punch green, I come to that conclusion on the basis that doing nothing, the status quo, is unacceptable, even if we fail."
The bill had also been promoted by the national group Americans for Prosperity, funded by conservative mega-funders Charles and David Koch, which set up a West Virginia chapter in 2013 with right-to-work at the top of its agenda. The group aired TV ads, sent out paper mailers, knocked on doors, and coordinated phone calls to legislators in support of the bill.
Democrats and unions disputed the study's methodologies and findings, and countered that, along with a poorly-performing education system, the state’s main disadvantage is a lack of flat land for development.
“This bill is absolutely terrible for a state that was built on the backs of labor,” said Brian Jones, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of West Virginia, who was doing some last-minute meetings with delegates before the vote. Along with many other union leaders, he expressed hope that this year’s elections could rectify the likely result. “The fight’s not over, whatever the outcome is.”
A previous version of this story incorrectly characterized the change in Indiana's union membership. The error has been corrected.