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As Democrats have now taken control of Virginia’s legislature, legislators and pundits have begun to debate repealing Virginia’s Right to Work law. Delegate Lee Carter of Manassas has filed a bill that would repeal Right to Work, House Bill 153. What is Right to Work and what could a repeal of the law mean for you?

What is (and isn’t) Right to Work?

First, it is important to note what Right to Work is not.  Right to Work laws are often confused with the doctrine of At-Will Employment.  In Virginia, At-Will Employment is the rule that employees can be dismissed at any time, for any reason that is not illegal.  The At-Will Employment doctrine is not going anywhere.

Right to Work, on the other hand, is a more limited principle. Right to Work means that an employer is not allowed to require employees to pay union dues or an “agency fee” as a condition of employment. Unions collect “dues” from employees to support all of the union’s activities.  Alternatively, Unions collect an “agency fee” from employees that do not wish to be members of the union. The union applies the agency fee to the union’s collective bargaining efforts, but not towards the union’s organizing or political efforts.  In states with right-to-work laws like Virginia, employees can refuse to join the union and refuse to pay the agency fee.

Union advocates argue that collecting an agency fee prevents non-union employees from obtaining the collective bargaining benefits of union membership without paying for them. In contrast, proponents of Right to Work believe that the law gives employees greater freedom to choose their level of engagement with the union.  On a larger scale, proponents of Right to Work argue that a repeal would hurt economic development and provide a disincentive for businesses to relocate or expand operations in Virginia.

Virginia was one of the first states to pass a Right to Work law in 1947, the same year that federal legislation allowed states to pass such laws.  Now, more than half of the states in the country currently have Right to Work laws in place. 

What would a repeal mean?

House Bill 153 and a repeal of Right to Work will almost certainly not pass in the 2020 Virginia legislative session.  The House Bill will have to also pass the Senate, and Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (who also serves as chair of the Senate Commerce and Labor committee) has publicly stated that Right to Work is not going to “disappear” in Virginia. 

However, it is important to know how an eventual repeal could affect your workplace.  If the political climate were to change and Right to Work laws were to be repealed, the effects likely would not be felt for some time.  In the long term, a repeal could strengthen the unions; if unions can collect agency fees from all employees, they will be better funded, and may recruit more employees to join, strengthening the union’s bargaining position. Stronger unions could mean increased business costs associated with an uptick in union activity and bargaining power, and potential issues with employee recruitment.

Hirschler will keep a close watch on HB153 and other attempts to repeal Right to Work laws in Virginia.  If you have questions about Right to Work, please contact your Hirschler attorney. 

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Heather A. Scott

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