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Unions See Spotty Right-to-Work Results in Alabama, Virginia

Business leaders and Republican legislators want to make laws that limit the power of labor unions permanent. In one state, they just did.

United Steelworkers Rally
Members of the United Steelworkers and AFL-CIO rally for public employees.
(AP/Gene J. Puskar)
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Alabama and Virginia already prohibit employers from forcing their workers to join a union. The states have had so-called “right-to-work” laws on their books since the days of Truman and Eisenhower. But those states parted ways on Tuesday on whether that policy should be included in their states’ constitutions.

Alabama voters overwhelmingly supported the idea, with 69 percent in favor, while 53 percent of Virginia voters rejected it.

The Republican-controlled legislatures in both states proposed the amendments as a way to make the anti-union policies permanent. Doing so, argued the Virginia chapter of AFL-CIO, which represents labor unions, “is unnecessary, wastes taxpayer money and would be nearly impossible to reverse.”

Right-to-work laws don’t prevent workers from joining unions. But they do weaken the power of unions by making it illegal to require employees to join a union or pay the union fees to represent them in collective bargaining.

Twenty-six states have right-to-work laws on the books, but only 10 of them have such provisions in their state constitutions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Meanwhile, some of the recently passed laws, like the ones in Wisconsin and West Virginia, are being challenged in court.

Alabama, long a home to heavy manufacturing, has one of the highest unionization levels in the South, with 10.2 percent of the population belonging to a union. That’s below the national average but roughly double the rate of any of the state's neighbors. As Alabama competes with other Southern states for auto and aerospace manufacturing jobs, some business leaders worry that the high unionization rate will be an obstacle to attracting more of those companies. 

Alabama adopted its law after widespread labor unrest in the wake of World War II. Throughout the country, there were major strikes in the steel, auto and railroad industries, to name a few. Between 1950 and 1953, when Alabama adopted its right-to-work law, the country saw more than 400 annual work stoppages. In 2015, by comparison, there were 12.

William Canary, president and CEO of the Business Council of Alabama, warned that the recent rise of unions may again threaten the state’s economy.

Workers at a Chinese-owned copper tubing plant in Alabama, for example, narrowly voted to join the United Steelworkers in 2014. Meanwhile, the United Auto Workers has been working since 2013 to organize workers at a Mercedes plant in northern Alabama, with similar efforts underway at Hyundai and Honda factories in the state.

“It is time for Alabama to enshrine the right to work in our constitution and send a loud message to economic developers and potential industrial prospects that we remain open for business,” said Canary.

But Bren Riley, president of the 65,000-member Alabama AFL-CIO, doubted that the amendment would attract any more jobs or change much of anything for workers in Alabama. He saw the proposal, which stalled in the GOP-led legislature for several years before making it to the ballot, as an effort directed by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC did not return calls for comment.

Riley also argued that right-to-work laws are a bad idea -- whether they're constitutionalized or not.

“If a business seeks membership in the chamber of commerce, it pays dues. Folks don't get country club memberships without paying dues, either," he wrote in a statement. "It simply makes sense on every level that those workers reaping the benefit of the tireless efforts of Alabama's unions pay a fair share of dues, as well."

The AFL-CIO fought back, specifically targeting white, conservative voters in its outreach and plans on running newspaper ads calling on voters to “put an end to government waste and a bloated constitution.”

Virginia's workforce, meanwhile, is much less unionized than Alabama's: 5.4 percent in 2015. But because Virginia’s population is much bigger, the two states have a similar number of unionized workers (190,000 in Alabama and 202,000 in Virginia).

Virginia, though, is much more competitive politically than red Alabama. Virginia Democrats controlled the state Senate for four years prior to 2013 and took the governorship in three of the last four elections. But the House of Delegates now remains firmly under Republican control, so if the ballot measure had passed, it would have made it harder for Democrats to repeal the policy if they ever take control of the legislature.

In 1944, Arkansas became the first state to include the right to work in its charter. Oklahoma was the most recent state to add a constitutional amendment in 2001.

Missouri could become the 27th state with a right-to-work law. Missouri’s Republican legislature failed last year to override a veto from Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon of a right-to-work law there, but Nixon’s term ends next year. Eric Greitens, the Republican who won the race to succeed him, supports right-to-work legislation.

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