After winning a trifecta—taking House of Delegates and Senate in 2019, after nabbing the governor’s mansion in 2017—Virginia Democrats prepared for a kick-ass 2020 legislative session. And they got it, delivering on a wish list of progressive legislation that makes Virginians’ lives better while also telling Americans: Elections have consequences, potentially great ones, if enough voters turn out.
But there was one major area of disappointment for progressives. When it came to action on the economy, moderate Democratic Governor Ralph Northam used the threat of Covid-19 to “postpone” legislation advancing workers’ rights. Most notably, on Saturday he instructed the legislature to delay the implementation of bills granting certain city and county employees collective-bargaining rights, and increasing the minimum wage, over the next three years, from $7.25 an hour to $12 an hour. The collective-bargaining law was supposed to go into effect in June of 2020, with the first minimum wage-hike starting January 2021; now, both will take effect May 1, 2021, a full year from now. The governor’s decision showed that while Democrats have made great strides on social and civil rights issues, some in the party lag behind when it comes to helping workers.
Northam’s disappointing moves on labor-rights bills shouldn’t obscure the legislature’s progressive achievements, however. They are truly astonishing for one session, especially in a state that was long a GOP stronghold. The Democrat-controlled General Assembly ratified the Equal Rights Amendment and repealed the state’s 24-hour-waiting period to get an abortion, as well as its offensive ultrasound requirement. It passed automatic voter registration, made Election Day a state holiday, implemented no-excuse absentee balloting, and repealed parts of the state’s strict voter ID law. It banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in both housing and employment.
The legislature moved on criminal justice, decriminalizing marijuana, increasing the threshold where a theft becomes a felony (rather than a misdemeanor) from $500 to $1,000, requiring court approval to try 14- and 15-year-olds as adults, and ending the practice of suspending the driver’s license of anyone with unpaid court fees. It made strides on environmental justice, passing a clean-energy act that commits the state to transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. There were smaller but important victories, including a bill that capped insulin co-pays at $50.
And in the very home of the NRA, the legislature passed a roster of gun-safety laws that Republicans bottled up last year, imposing background checks, purchase limits (one handgun a month, which seems like a lot but…), penalties for those who don’t report lost or stolen guns in 24 hours, and a red-flag measure letting police confiscate firearms if an owner is dangerous—to himself (sorry, it’s almost always a him), or others.
The moderate Northam signed all those bills, and more. Yet he asked the legislature to “postpone” implementation of both the first minimum-wage hike as well as the public workers’ collective-bargaining bill from January 2021 to May 2021.
“This will ensure workers get the support they need while allowing greater economic certainty in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic,” Northam said, in a statement of questionable logic.
Unions and workers’ rights groups have likewise used the pandemic—to fight Northam’s moves.
“Virginia’s minimum-wage and public-sector workers alike are serving on the front lines of this pandemic,” the state’s AFL-CIO president Doris Crouse-Mays said in a statement. “United we bargain, divided we beg—and begging is exactly what delaying this legislation will ensure.” Delegate Lee Carter agreed. “It’s downright shameful that he’s delaying the minimum wage because many of them are deemed the most ‘essential’ workers during the pandemic”—grocery store clerks, health aides, transit system custodians.
The sponsor of the collective bargaining bill, Del. Elizabeth Guzman, was surprised by Northam’s decision. “We knew the deadline to sign was Saturday, and I hadn’t heard from him all day. I assumed no news is good news,” she said. “Then at 6 pm a staffer called” and told her the governor was going to move to delay the bill. “I was disappointed,” she said, since the bill already represented a compromise with conservative factions in the state senate.
There’s reason to doubt Northam’s Covid-19 excuse as the sole reason behind his moves. Despite his transition to comparatively progressive after a blackface scandal almost brought him down last year, he has remained conservative on certain labor issues. One high priority for progressives early this year was repealing the state’s 72-year-old “right to work” law; and almost straight out of the gate, after Democrats won their trifecta, Northam signaled his opposition to the move, in remarks to his pro-business “revenue advisory council.”
“I can’t foresee Virginia taking actions [to] repeal right to work,” he said in November, according to the Richmond Times Dispatch. Progressives lamented the governor’s timidity: “What’s the Point of Ralph Northam Anymore?” New York magazine’s Zak Cheney Rice declared.
Northam’s words reverberated with other pro-business “moderate” Democrats, and they held up Lee Carter’s bill repealing “right to work” in the appropriations committee. Three senior Democratic senators also helped block or water down other labor priorities: Majority leader Dick Saslaw (D-35) blocked collective bargaining for state workers, leaving the bill that got out of the Senate a weakened shell that merely allowed local governments to “opt in” to permitting city and county workers to collectively bargain (Northam postponed it anyway). Senator Dave Marsden weakened the minimum-wage law, pushing its upper limit of $15 by 2026, passed by the House of Delegates, down to $12 by 2023. And Senator Chap Petersen (D-35) blocked guaranteed paid sick days.
Nominally, Northam bowed to a consortium of 27 industry groups, the Coalition for a Strong Virginia Economy, that has been lobbying against the laws the governor put on hold. But he also bowed to the state’s strong history of promoting business interests at the expense of labor, a bipartisan priority. Democrats originally imposed the state’s right-to-work law, and Democrats have blocked its repeal ever since. While Virginia leaders boast of the state’s AAA bond rating and studies finding it the number-one place to do business in the country, last year Oxfam rated it the worst place for workers.
Even as Northam brags about signing strong civil rights measures this session, he ignores the civil rights element to the pro-labor bills he’s “postponed”: that women and people of color are most likely to be public employees, and most likely to be minimum-wage workers. The Economic Policy Institute recently reported that public-sector employees in Virginia are mostly female (57.5 percent), and that the share of black workers (20.9 percent) is higher than in the private sector (17.9 percent). “Women and people of color make up the majority of our workforce generally, and are most likely to be our ‘essential’ personnel” [in the pandemic], says Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy. The state’s Legislative Black Caucus also asked Northam to sign the pro-labor bills, but despite the fact that the group essentially saved his political career after his blackface scandal, he didn’t listen.
It may be that in the long run, the pandemic strengthens labor’s hand nationally. (Of course, as John Maynard Keynes famously said, “In the long run we are all dead,” particularly ominous in the shadow of this deadly virus.) There’s no doubt unions have been essential—if not always successful—in helping workers attain more protection. EPI also recently published an article by a former Occupational Safety and Health official arguing that “workers exposed to the coronavirus need to be able to protect themselves from illness or death without risking their employment,” and detailing the ways unions have done so.
But Virginia is not going to be a leader in strengthening labor’s ability to fight the virus any time soon.
It’s also worth noting that women and people of color, the constituencies hurt most by Northam’s actions, are also the voters who powered Democrats to their trifecta victories in 2017 and ’19. Will the governor’s anti-labor moves lead to voter disaffection in 2020, and in the next Virginia legislative elections in 2021?
“We got more than anyone anticipated in this session, in terms of access to the ballot, abortion rights, and gun safety,” Carroll Foy said, and Democrats will make sure their voters know that. But Northam’s blocking pro-labor bills, she admits, “is definitely not the message we want to send to working-class Virginians.”
Guzman likewise sees a lot of progress during the session, despite Northam’s disappointing moves. “Look, Virginia was a conservative state. Even three years ago, when I was first elected, there was no room for a discussion like this.
“So the fight continues. I’m coming back next year. We’re not going to leave one worker behind.”