It was a major policy shift for a longtime stronghold of progressivism and unionism that in 1959 had adopted the nation’s first state law allowing public-sector workers to bargain collectively. After Act 10 passed, unions and their Democratic allies fought back with demonstrations, lawsuits and a recall attempt against Walker, but failed.
The drama in Wisconsin showed that the Republican Party had both bounced back from the party’s losses in 2008 and shifted further right in the process. The movement spread to other erstwhile pro-labor states such as Michigan, Indiana and Kentucky. Currently, 27 of the 50 states are right-to-work.
Now, the question is whether Virginia’s Democrats will use their new unified control over that once-red state to execute a Walker-like maneuver — in the opposite direction.
Many of the Democrats elected to the General Assembly in 2019 did so after promising to repeal the state’s right-to-work law, which has been on the books since 1947, when a GOP Congress, acting over President Harry S. Truman’s veto, allowed states to adopt such statutes. Unions that helped Democrats win this year are “very, very, very hopeful that repeal is on the horizon,” as state AFL-CIO spokeswoman Destiny LeVere told me.
Also in labor’s sights is a 1993 Virginia statute that codified a ban on collective bargaining in the public sector that the state supreme court had imposed in 1977. Virginia and North Carolina are the only two states with blanket prohibitions.
In short, one of the most anti-labor state legal regimes could become one of the most pro-labor, which could have national repercussions just as the policy change Walker and company pulled off in Wisconsin did.
A huge irony of the situation is that the labor laws many Virginia Democrats now oppose are the handiwork of previous Democrat-dominated governments.
The 1947 right-to-work bill passed under the party’s old Southern segregationist incarnation, to be sure; but it was a moderate Democrat, and the state’s first African American governor, L. Douglas Wilder, who signed the 1993 public-sector collective bargaining ban, after it passed the General Assembly with overwhelming bipartisan support.
Before this year, leading Democrats — such as former governors Terry McAuliffe, Tim Kaine and Mark R. Warner — have generally acquiesced in Virginia’s labor policy, which state business considers a pillar of the economy. Virginia economic development officials could count on investors to note the contrast with neighboring Maryland, where there is no right-to-work law and unions are stronger.
In this respect also, there is a Wisconsin parallel. In that state, Republicans twice had unified control of government prior to Walker’s 2010 election — in 1995 and 1998 — but did not use their power to take on pro-union laws. The GOP was more centrist then, too.
In 2016, Virginia Republicans and business groups, possibly sensing that the GOP grip on the state was ending, tried to inscribe right-to-work in the commonwealth's constitution, by referendum. It lost — 54 percent to 46 percent.
Now all that may stand between Virginia and a labor-law revolution are the crowded legislative calendar and the reluctance of Democratic Senate leader Richard L. Saslaw, a 79-year-old political veteran, who told me he is “not a big proponent” of changing right-to-work, but might be open to compromises.
Gov. Ralph Northam, also a product of the era of Democratic right-to-work acquiescence, told The Post he would not answer “a hypothetical question” about changing the law.
In practical terms, the stakes may be more limited than activists on either side suggest, at least in the short term. Of Virginia’s 3.8 million workers, only 222,000 were covered by union contracts in 2018, with 176,000 of them paying dues, according to the Labor Department. The 45,000 difference represents the modest number of people who could be newly required to pay dues.
Legalizing public-sector bargaining would not enhance unions’ treasuries because of the Supreme Court’s 2018 Janus ruling, which essentially imposed a ban on mandatory dues collection in the public sector nationwide.
Nevertheless, repealing right-to-work in Virginia after 72 years would be symbolically potent, given the state’s historic role as a bastion of anti-union conservatism.
It would confirm the leftward transition of the Democratic Party and, possibly, a kind of geopolitical switch between an increasingly diverse, liberal coastal Southeast and the Great Lakes states, which were once reliably blue and pro-union but are now reddening.
America is changing, swiftly, but it is not coming together.