Since 1947 Virginia has tried to keep labor unions at bay by maintaining a right-to-work law, which among other things forbids requiring workers to join unions as a condition of employment.
Delegate Richard Bell, R-Staunton, wants to take that measure a step further by making it part of the state's constitution, a move some Democratic legislators say is unnecessary.
Some 22 states, mostly in the South and West, have right-to-work laws. In Virginia decades ago they were used to stifle labor organizing in large manufacturing sectors such as textiles and furniture making. The right-to-work laws also make the state more attractive to businesses that are considering moving their operations out of unionized states.
Things have changed dramatically as global competition has driven away many blue-collar jobs. Only about 15.5 million, or 12.4 percent of American workers, belong to unions In Virginia, besides Newport News Shipbuilding, the remaining labor strongholds are government workers, mostly in Northern Virginia.
Polls show that average Americans regard unions negatively. The New Yorker reported on the phenomenon this week, crediting the shift in part to “pension envy,” because the current recession showed just how much in benefits unionized workers got compared to others.
Still, putting a right-to-work clause in the state constitution might seem a bit over the top. After all, a number of large corporate employers, such as Media General, which publishes the Richmond Times-Dispatch, require new employees to sign statements that they accept the company's “union-free policies.”