Congressman Mark Pocan and Senator Bernie Sanders sent an important—if, sadly, little noted—signal last year about how to stand up for worker rights. They introduced a national Workplace Democracy Act that proposed to knock down the barriers to union organizing and collective bargaining that have been erected by politicians who serve as errand boys for corporate power.
Decrying “a corporate-driven agenda that makes it harder for middle class families to get ahead,” Pocan, the Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair who is a member of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades union, announced that “The Workplace Democracy Act restores real bargaining rights to workers and repeals the right to work laws like those that [Wisconsin Governor Scott] Walker has used to undercut American workers.”
Rejecting the caution that many Democrats have displayed with regard to struggles for labor rights, Pocan and Sanders went to the heart of the matter. Their legislation proposed to “end right to work for less laws by repealing Section 14(b) of the Taft Hartley Act, which has allowed 28 states to pass legislation eliminating the ability of unions to collect fair share fees from those who benefit from union contracts and activities.”
So-called “right to work” laws were enacted more than 70 years ago in many Southern and border states, where segregationist politicians (most of them Democrats) sought to block the rise industrial unions that organized workers of all races. But, in recent years, these laws have moved north—to historic industrial states such as Wisconsin and Michigan. They’re not popular. Just last year, Missouri voters rejected a right-to-work proposal by a 2-1 margin.
Yet Republican governors and legislatures keep pushing to enact and expand upon right-to-work laws, as part of a broader anti-union crusade. And when Democrats come to power, especially in Southern states such as Virginia, they have often avoided challenging laws that are favored by corporate campaign donors.
But Virginia legislator Lee Carter is a different kind of Democrat. Elected as a proud democratic socialist, he celebrated his victory by leading his supporters in signing the union anthem, “Solidarity Forever.” When the virulently anti-labor National Right-to Work Committee sent his campaign a questionnaire, Carter posted a video of the letter being shredded in front of a “Union Strong” poster.
Carter, who pledged during his 2017 campaign to “work to overturn Virginia’s RTW laws,” is making good on that promise. He has begun the 2019 legislative session by introducing HB 1806, a measure designed to upend the restrictions that were imposed by segregationist lawmakers shortly after the passage of the Taft-Hartley law. He also wants to grant teachers and other public employees the right to strike. (Carter says, “Teacher strikes are the last line of defense for neglected schools. Striking teachers should be thanked for their courage, not fired.”)
Prominent and powerful Virginia Democrats have historically avoided addressing the “right-to-work” laws that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. described as a “fraud” designed to “rob us of our civil rights and job rights.” As recently as 2016, the Democratic minority leader of the Virginia House of Delegates, David Toscano, announced that “the ‘right-to-work’ statute has been in Virginia law since 1947 and has never been seriously questioned.”
But Lee Carter is now questioning it—and proposing to overturn it. It’s an uphill struggle in a Republican-controlled legislature. But Carter has embraced it.
Decrying Taft-Hartley as a scheme “intentionally designed to bankrupt unions,” he explains that “When workers form a union, everyone in the workplace benefits from higher wages and better conditions. But ever since 1947, Virginia has allowed some to freeload off of their coworkers’ hard-won union without paying dues. I’ve filed HB1806 to end this 70+ year injustice.”
Good for Carter. Hopefully, his aggressive championship of worker rights in Virginia will inspire more Democrats in that state and nationwide to overturn the anti-union legislation that Dr. King decried with his historic warning: “In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work.’ It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights. Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone.”