Labor may get its day in General Assembly

A number of bills pending in the Virginia General Assembly could alter the landscape for workers and employers in Louisa County.

State legislators are considering raising the minimum wage for the first time since it was set by the federal government at $7.25 an hour in 2009. They may also give government workers the right to bargain collectively over working conditions and pay. Virginia is one of only three states that does not allow this for public employees.

Business owners are even more unsettled about a proposal to end the state’s right-to-work law, which has been on the books since the 1940s. The law forbids requiring workers to join a labor union as part of their employment. Gov. Ralph Northam has indicated he doesn’t want to scrap the law this year, but related bills remain active in legislative committees.

The Louisa County Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors voted last week to join a statewide coalition opposed to any changes to the right-to-work law. They say it is a factor for companies that are deciding which state to locate in.

“If Virginia becomes unionized, that doesn’t make us as competitive for business coming into the state,” said Tracy Hale Clark, the chamber’s executive director. Clark and Marie Snyder, the chamber’s director, traveled to Richmond on Jan. 23 to meet with legislators about the issue and learn about other pending bills.

Unions have long been present in the state, but right-to-work opponents say the law puts them at a financial disadvantage. They say unions help raise standards for all workers at a company, so it’s reasonable to ask all employees to contribute.

“Unions have given people a better life than they would have otherwise,” said Juanita Jo Matkins, a Louisa resident who ran for state delegate in 2019 and is Louisa Democratic Committee vice chair.

The collective bargaining bill, introduced by Delegate Elizabeth Guzman of Prince William County, would establish a Public Employee Relations Board to determine who would have the right to act on behalf of government workers.

If a group of workers agrees with their employers on pay rates but the board of supervisors or school board rejects the deal, the two parties would have to renegotiate. Thirty percent of workers in a category, such as teachers, would have to agree to be represented by a particular bargaining unit.

Employees would not be allowed to strike in order to achieve their goal. Few states allow teachers, police officers or fire and emergency services workers to walk off the job, though that didn’t stop teachers in West Virginia from going on a two-week strike in 2018.

The Louisa County Education Association acts as a liaison between teachers and school officials, but does not have the power to negotiate pay or working conditions.

The Louisa County Board of Supervisors approved a resolution at their Feb. 3 meeting opposing the collective bargaining bill.

Earlier in the day, the Senate Labor and Commerce committee amended its version of the bill. The Senate bill now says that a local government can opt not to bargain with employees. A school board could still agree to bargain even if the board of supervisors does not.

Several minimum wage bills were introduced in January to raise Virginia’s base wage in stages to $15. A few large U.S. cities have already raised their minimum to $15, but in most states large employers like Walmart have opted for a more modest increase to $11. Critics worry many businesses will offset the impact of a higher minimum wage by cutting positions or reducing hours.

“The most recent studies have shown that past increases in the minimum wage had little or no impact on employment levels,” said Michael Cassidy, president of The Commonwealth Institute, a Richmond-based think tank.

When Sen. Dick Saslaw (Fairfax County) proposed a $15 minimum to the Labor and Commerce Committee, colleagues amended his bill to limit the increase to $11.75 per hour by 2022. A business would only be subject to further minimum wage hikes after that year if they do not provide health benefits to employees.

Some legislators noted differences in the cost of living and of doing business in rural versus urban areas and suggested the minimum wage ought to differ by region.

Chris Saxman, president of Virginia Free, a coalition of business executives, proposed that the General Assembly raise the minimum wage to $8.68, which is what $7.25 would be today if adjusted for inflation.

Other bills would end the exemption from the minimum wage for domestic workers, farm laborers and those in businesses with three or fewer employees. These workers are also currently exempt from worker’s compensation and other laws designed to protect their rights.

None of the labor-related bills had emerged yet as of Tuesday from committees to be heard on the House of Delegates or Senate floors. Crossover day is Feb. 12, when the House begins to consider bills approved in the Senate and vice versa.

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