Sean Perryman, a Democrat, is president of the Fairfax County Chapter of the NAACP and a candidate for lieutenant governor in Virginia.
In recent studies by CNBC and Oxfam, Virginia was ranked, respectively, the best state for business and the worst state — literally dead last — for workers. The pandemic has only magnified these inequities in our economic policy: Too many of our workers have consistently faced a lack of job protections while confronting an increased risk to their health and safety. Tens of thousands of others have been laid off.
Last month in Fairfax County, our educators were forced to choose between returning to teach in schools with very little guaranteed protections or taking a forced leave of absence. A day before the scheduled return, the plans were withdrawn. This sort of disregard for workers, their time and their stability is directly tied to Virginia’s right-to-work laws.
Right-to-work doesn’t mean that one has a right to a job and that one cannot be fired without cause. Instead, these laws prohibit or severely limit the ability of labor unions to represent workers in collective bargaining and to fight for decent pay, better conditions, retirement, insurance, and leave for sickness or vacation. And it should come as no surprise that these deleterious effects fall disproportionately on Black, brown and female workers.
The phrase “right to work” itself was popularized by Vance Muse, an intolerable racist who pushed for the original laws to be put in place in the Jim Crow South. He and his allies sold right-to-work by saying that, without it, “white women and white men will be forced into organizations with black African apes whom they will have to call ‘brother’ or lose their jobs.” In 1961, 14 years after Virginia enacted its own laws, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out, “Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer, and there are no civil rights. . . . We demand this fraud be stopped.”
Well, it’s almost 2021, and little has changed. It’s time that we all demand this fraud be stopped on behalf of working-class families — and especially those on the front lines.
In the race to be a business-friendly commonwealth, Virginia’s leaders have forgotten that no business can be successful without the hard work of its employees. Often people have stated that Virginia ranks first for business because of right-to-work, but that ignores that the second-ranked best state for business — Washington — does not have right-to-work laws.
Beyond driving down wages, right-to-work has made our economy less democratic by reducing the ability of workers to make their collective voices heard. That has made it only easier for the economic gains created by workers to flow straight to the country’s wealthiest people, contributing to ever-growing income inequality. Organized labor and collective bargaining are the best ways for everyday people to win back their democratic voice and become a lasting counterweight to the power of big business and special interests.
Thanks to the Democratic majorities in the General Assembly, some progress has been made. Effective this coming spring, prevailing wage rates will be set, and in the future, penalties can be levied for wage theft, an alarming but prevalent practice in which employers fail to pay minimum wages, overtime or even for regular hours worked.
But more must be done. Major change is needed to make Virginia a place where workers share in the prosperity they create. People are working harder and longer than ever but still can’t keep up with the exploding cost of housing, health care, child care and higher education. And so we must repeal right-to-work laws, implement paid sick leave for all and demand a minimum wage that is a living wage.
We don’t have to let the false choice between a strong economy and empowering our workers paralyze us from action. We can have both. I won’t back down from economic justice because I grew up in a Black, working-class family. I know what it’s like to have to fight for prosperity, and I’ve seen what the power of organized labor has done to help my community. Together, let’s raise a bold and consistent voice for progress, and create a commonwealth that lives up to its purpose: a common good for all.