Don’t turn Virginia into California

Don’t turn Virginia into California

The Old Dominion has thrived because it went with worker freedom, keeping taxes low and the economy booming. Now is not the time to pass a one-sided bill that hurts public employees and taxpayers.

This piece was originally published by The Washington Post on Tuesday, Feb. 11.

Virginia could soon have one of the United States’ most expansive public-sector union systems, rivaling union-dominated states such as Connecticut, Illinois, New York and California. The big state news in 2020 so far is the legislature’s recently failed effort to repeal the commonwealth’s right-to-work law, which prevents private-sector unions from getting workers fired for not paying dues. But the legislature is advancing a government-focused bill that deserves at least as much attention.

Virginia prohibits government unions from engaging in collective bargaining. This policy has allowed local elected officials to forge constructive relationships directly with public employees, reaping benefits for everyone. Insider ranks the state’s education system as the nation’s seventh best. WalletHub says Virginia’s low tax burden puts it in the top 25 percent of states, and the American Legislative Exchange Council says the Old Dominion has the 14th best economic outlook in the country. As a resident of Virginia, I can attest that the economy is booming, the schools are good and my neighbors and I are happy to live in such a historically sensibly run state.

Which makes the pending public-sector unionization bill so concerning. Passed in the House on Thursday, H.B. 582 would repeal the long-standing ban on collective bargaining. Then it would grease the wheels to make sure unions can organize as easily as possible, despite what taxpayers and even public employees may want.

Here’s what will happen if the bill becomes law: To start, union organizers would descend on schools, fire stations, police stations and government offices. Under the bill, they only need a majority of eligible workers to sign a document saying they support the union, and then the union is in. This is “card check,” and it’s a union favorite. It allows for public intimidation and coercion, such that unions and their allies can pressure the workers who say no. Virginia’s public employees will lose their right to a secret ballot, a hallmark of free and fair elections.

Once organized, unions will then have access to public employee’s personal contact information, including their home addresses, cellphone numbers and personal email addresses. There are no protections for these employees to opt out of their employers sharing this information with the union and no prohibition that the union will not share or sell the information to third parties.

Every new hire must also sit through a union sales pitch, which the bill states will run for “no less than 30 minutes.” You can be sure that the union will pull out every stop to convince the employee to let the union take dues out of their paychecks. The legislation mandates that public employers collect these dues, essentially making the Virginia taxpayer fund the union’s operations.

The bill would create a new Public Employee Relations Board, which would have three members appointed by the governor. Under the current administration, at least two, and probably all three, would be labor allies. One would always be drawn from a list of names provided by the AFL-CIO, and the board would have the power to “sue and be sued,” issue subpoenas and compel witness testimony. This means the AFL-CIO would be able to use government coercion to advance its goals.

Rarely do private organizations have so much control over the levers of labor power. No wonder: It is an obvious conflict of interest.

Public workers would not be the only losers. Virginia taxpayers would be kept in the dark when governments bargain with unions, even though we would be the ones footing the bill. The legislation exempts labor negotiating and strategy sessions from Virginia’s open meetings law, which requires public involvement, minutes and notice of date and time. The most important discussions — what the government is giving unions — would be shrouded in secrecy until it’s a fait accompli.

Taken together, the bill represents the most extreme state expansion of public-sector collective bargaining in decades. The Senate has a related bill that’s much more vague. It would allow unions to put pressure on local governments to adopt mini versions of the House bill. The Senate will vote on the bill on Tuesday.

Crucially, neither bill significantly limits union bargaining on wages, pensions or other items. This doesn’t bode well for Virginia taxpayers. Nor does it bode well for local governments, which would find it harder and harder to run and fund their cities, counties and schools. The Commission on Local Government estimated the bill would cost the Roanoke $28,299,698 and other cities eight figures as well. Counties also would face rising costs.

Why is the commonwealth of Virginia trying to emulate California, Connecticut, New York, Illinois and other public-union dominated states? The Old Dominion has thrived because it went with worker freedom, keeping taxes low and the economy booming. Now is not the time to pass a one-sided bill that hurts public employees and taxpayers and puts the Old Dominion’s destiny in the hands of government unions.

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