By Steve Haner
Twenty thousand working families forced to pull $450 per year out of their tight family budgets may not think it “fair” that they are forced to “share” their earnings with a union they chose not to join.
The debate over repealing Virginia’s Right to Work statute, or the more likely step of forcing non-union members to pay partial dues, has largely been academic. Some defenders of Virginia’s Right to Work status have now produced some new data on the dollar impact on real people.
According to the most recent reports Virginia’s unions must file, there are about 118,000 Virginians actively working in private companies covered by a union contract, with about 98,000 in the unions and another 19,400 union-eligible employees who have exercised their “right to work” without belonging. This is 2018 data.
Based on the reports from the ten largest private unions, the average annual dues are about $750 per year (the range is wide.) Forcing 19,400 workers around Virginia to join would take $14.5 million out of their pockets to be paid to the unions. For that relatively small take, Virginia’s marketing advantage as a Right to Work state would disappear.
Under the more likely pending legislation, Senate Bill 426, they would not be forced to join but a portion of the dues would be extracted from their paychecks, no more than 60% of full dues. That could be about $450 per year, almost $38 per month. That would raise the unions just under $9 million per year. Advocates say since the non-union employees have contract benefits negotiated by the union, they should pay a “fair share” of the union overhead.
The dues vary widely. Asked for examples, Virginia Works reported the data indicates the 8,200 members of the Steelworkers local at Newport News Shipbuilding paid an average of $800 per year in 2018, while 1,300 Longshoremen members in Virginia paid an average of more than $2,300. (Note: I had incorrect figures in the initial post, failing to add local and national dues.)
The pending bill, sponsored by no less than Senate Majority Leader Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax, claims the non-members would not be assessed (taxed?) to cover the unions’ political activities or campaign contributions. The bill was scheduled for a hearing Monday night, but the committee moved so slowly on other bills it was delayed. Technically, it does not repeal the right to work language in the state code, but the economic reputation downside would be the same. That damage would greatly exceed the benefit to the unions.
The report was compiled by a group calling itself Virginia Works. Attorney and author F. Vincent Vernuccio has a long history on union-related issues with the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
“Until recently, this was bipartisan orthodoxy in Virginia. During his 2013 gubernatorial campaign, Democratic candidate and former chair of the Democratic National Committee Terry McAuliffe celebrated Virginia’s status as “a great right-to-work state,” adding, “We should never change that. It helps us do what we need to do to grow our businesses here in Virginia.” The previous Democratic gubernatorial nominee thought the same way. In 2009, state Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, observed that “there’s no question the right-to-work law has brought jobs to Virginia.”
“It is not just the jobs or household incomes or even the amount of the union dues paid under protest that should be a concern for Virginians. Equally if not more important is the freedom of every worker to decide for herself whether she wants to be a dues-paying union member.”
Almost 100,000 additional Virginians work in public unionized positions, Virginia Works reported, mostly with the federal government. Public employee unions at the local level don’t exist, yet, but that is up for consideration at the General Assembly, too. The fair share approach would not apply to them, only private employees.
As a reality check, I ran these numbers briefly by a union official I see here at the Capitol from time to time, and she claimed they are probably somewhat low. But they do not track or publish the data either and if they produce their own figures for membership and what they call “free riders,” they will be reported.
As important as that data would be to this debate, it is not part of the record on Saslaw’s bill. There is no fiscal impact statement. You’d think some legislator would ask.
Virginia’s total employment, per the latest Virginia Employment Commission unemployment statistics, exceeds 4 million. People who are in a union, or who are eligible to belong to one but refuse to, represent a tiny segment of the economy. Perhaps this means the issue is just a sideshow, given all the other labor and employment battles in the 2020 General Assembly. But without question, being a Right to Work state is a major economic development draw and throwing that away for over so few is also questionable. Passing Fair Share equals repealing Right to Work.