Election Results a ‘Mixed Bag’ on Right-to-Work Measures

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By Rhonda Smith, Chris Marr and Mark Wolski

Nov. 9 — Proponents of right-to-work laws prevailed Nov. 8 in Alabama and South Dakota on related but very different ballot initiatives, but they lost their bid in Virginia to enshrine such a statute in the commonwealth’s constitution.

“Generally, what we saw with the measures were a mixed bag,” Jonathan Williams, vice president of the Center for State Fiscal Reform at the American Legislative Exchange Council, told Bloomberg BNA today.

Voters in Alabama approved adding right-to-work language to their state’s constitution with nearly 70 percent support. The amendment’s supporters said the move will boost the state’s economic development efforts.

In South Dakota, almost 80 percent of voters rejected an initiative that would have allowed unions to charge fees to nonunion workers for the services they receive under union contracts. This marked the first time voters had been asked to approve language that would negate the effects of right-to-work laws.

But voters in Virginia rejected, by 53 percent to 46 percent, a right-to-work ballot question similar to the one approved in Alabama.

“We were surprised that Virginia voters narrowly rejected enshrining ‘right to work’ in the state constitution,” Williams said. But because Virginia already enacted a right-to-work law, “this rejection won’t change anything in terms of policy.”

ALEC, a proponent of right-to-work laws, is a voluntary membership organization of state lawmakers who support the principles of “limited government, free markets and federalism,” its website states.

Virginia Ran ‘Grassroots Campaign.’

Right-to-work laws typically bar union contracts from requiring workers to pay union dues or fees, even if they’re covered by the agreement.

“In Virginia, we ran a very successful grassroots campaign,” Gina Maglionico, a spokeswoman for the Virginia AFL-CIO, told Bloomberg BNA Nov. 9.

“Since January, we have been focused on educating our members, and as many voters as possible, about what ‘right to work’ really means,” she said. “Thankfully, voters saw through the lies that this is about making businesses feel welcome in Virginia.”

A total of 26 states have enacted right-to-work laws.

With voters in Alabama approving a measure to enshrine right-to-work language in that state’s constitution, nine states now have approved constitutional protections pertaining to this issue, Williams said, citing data from the National Right to Work Committee.

“These ballot initiatives are not about economic data,” Gordon Lafer, a political economist and an associate professor at the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center, told Bloomberg BNA Nov. 8, before the election results were released.

“In Alabama and Virginia, they’re taking what’s already state law and putting it into the constitution,” he told Bloomberg BNA in an e-mail message. “This is either just political showmanship or represents fears on the part of employer lobbies that the population in those states may be changing enough that in the foreseeable future the legislature might overturn the RTW law.”

Alabama Competes With Neighbors

Alabama’s Amendment 8 provides that “the right of persons to work may not be denied or abridged on account of membership or nonmembership in a labor union or labor organization.”

The Alabama AFL-CIO had urged voters to reject the amendment, saying that paying dues is a fair expectation for employees who reap the benefits of a union at their workplace.

The Business Council of Alabama and other industry groups had encouraged support for the amendment, saying it would spur businesses to consider Alabama for expansion.

Right-to-work language has been part of Alabama state law since 1953, but the Business Council said adding it to the constitution makes it harder for a future legislature to undo the policy. Neighboring Mississippi and Florida are among the nine states with right-to-work language in their constitutions and are “direct competitors” with Alabama for economic development, the council said.

Union Effort Falls Short in South Dakota

In South Dakota, voters defeated a ballot measure favored by organized labor that would have required employees who are covered by a collective bargaining agreement but aren’t union members to pay union agency fees.

Measure No. 23 was aimed at closing what unions described as the “free-rider loophole’’ in state law, Jason George, special projects director for Local 49 of the International Union of Operating Engineers in Minneapolis, told Bloomberg BNA Nov. 8.

Nonunion workers wouldn’t have been required to join a union if the measure had passed, but unions would have had the ability to charge them fees for the services they receive through union contracts, he said.

“There are no other organizations in the country that I know of who are required by law to provide a service but banned from requiring beneficiaries of that service to pay their fair share of the cost of providing it,” the University of Oregon’s Lafer said.

But South Dakota residents have been told for 70 years that unions are “horrible,” George said, which made it hard to make headway against that message.

David Owen, president of the South Dakota Chamber of Commerce and Industry, shared another view. He helped coordinate the campaign to defeat the ballot measure.

“This was a relatively inexpensive way to try a new approach to get past right-to-work,” he said of the union’s effort. “But there’s no difference between being forced to join a union and being forced to pay a fee to a union.”

Individual freedom and the ability to decide on one’s own whether to join a union is “just part of the culture here,” Owen said. As a result, it’s unlikely such a measure will crop up in South Dakota again, he added.

“They tried to change it. They were soundly defeated. Life goes on,” he said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Rhonda Smith in Washington, D.C., at rsmith@bna.com; Mark Wolski in St. Paul, Minn., at mwolski@bna.com; Chris Marr in Atlanta at cmarr@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com

Copyright © 2016 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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