The volume of the crowd grew exponentially louder in the state Capitol and from the far end of the marble-lined Rotunda boos began to mix with the chants of “right-to-work is wrong.”
As Senate President Bill Cole, R-Mercer, made his way toward the House Chamber, his path grew narrower. The walls of unionized teachers, carpenters, electricians and miners squeezed in around the Republican candidate for governor, as a pair of State Police troopers tried to clear a path.
The first day of the 2016 West Virginia legislative session started off with more than a little energy as union members from throughout the state packed the Capitol Wednesday night to protest Republican sponsored bills that would end prevailing wages for laborers working on public projects and prohibit labor groups from collecting dues from non-union employees, even if they benefit from the union’s wage and benefit negotiations.
Many of the union members who protested Wednesday see the Republican majority’s policies as an effort to weaken unions. Most are angered by what they see as a veiled attempt to disrupt their ability to collectively bargain with their employers, and Cole was the target of much of that ire before the State of State address later in the evening.
Jeff Childers, a 40-year member of the Carpenters Union in Parkersburg, said right-to-work legislation — the law that would eliminate mandatory union dues — is nothing more than a direct attack on labor unions in West Virginia.
“It’s political,” Childers said, as he stood outside the Capitol with his son for more than 20 minutes Wednesday waiting to get through new security check points.
Republicans and other conservative politicians in West Virginia have made it a priority to repeal the state’s prevailing wages and to pass right-to-work legislation — now referred to as the “Workplace Freedom Act” — in order to make West Virginia more attractive for businesses.
The union members, who packed the top floor of the capitol in their camouflage jackets, United Mine Workers of America hats and signs reading “Stop the War on Workers,” didn’t buy that argument.
That right-to-work legislation and the repeal of prevailing wage were the first two bills introduced Wednesday was evidence enough for some organized laborers that the Republicans’ real goal was to dismantle unions in West Virginia.
“It says Republicans want to cram it down our throats, whether we want it or not,” said Andrew Keeney, a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers from Beckley.
The Republican leadership tried to change the prevailing wage laws last session by altering wage surveys, but they became frustrated when Workforce West Virginia didn’t use the type of data they wanted. At the same time, the 2015 right-to-work law never made it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
David Bell, an 18-year member of the Carpenters Union in Huntington, said the bills introduced in 2015 have made more people aware of what the Republican majority in both chambers are proposing.
“It worked everyone up last year,” Bell said.
Bell compared the collection of union dues to being a member of a country club. He said a golf course would never allow someone to enjoy a round of golf and the clubhouse bar without paying for it. He said the same should be true for people who benefit from union wage and benefit negotiations.
“Why can’t we earn a decent living? Why can’t we get a piece of the pie?” Keeney asked. “It’s got nothing to do with individual freedoms. It’s just a union busting attack.”
Jerry Booth, a 60-year member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, came to Charleston with more than 52 union members from Huntington.
Booth has been retired since 1999, but he said his son and grandson are both union members.
“It’s a pretty good turnout,” Booth said, as another chant went up inside the Rotunda. “Now we need to get the voters out.”
As the 2016 legislative session begins, Steve Shamblin, a teacher at Riverside High School, said the Legislature’s priorities are clear. He said lawmakers are trying to “pull the carpet out from under workers, and give employers the ability to cut wages and benefits.”
Dinah Adkins, the co-president of the Kanawha County Education Association, and other public employees at the rally were also there to protest the underfunding of the Public Employees Insurance Agency. State leaders say benefits for the public employees may need to be cut by as much as $120 million.
Adkins said it is time for legislators to fund PEIA, and she suggested using an increase in the tobacco tax to generate enough revenue.
Adkins said the union has accepted lower wages in the past with the understanding that they would receive better benefits. She said it’s time for the state to uphold those promises.
“It’s a good idea to let the Legislature know that we are alive and well,” Adkins said. “They need to listen to their constituents. It’s the everyday person that is supporting the economy and the state.
“When you don’t listen to the people, nothing goes well after that.”
Mark Dorsey no longer works as an underground coal miner, but he was gathered with many of his fellow UMWA members in the Capitol.
If “Workplace Freedom Act” passes, Dorsey believes it will spell the end of organized labor in West Virginia, and if that happens, he isn’t confident his union-negotiated benefits with Consol Energy will be respected and upheld in the future.
“I’m not about to lose what I worked a lifetime for,” Dorsey said. “The Legislature will run right-to-work tomorrow. The fight’s gonna start early.”