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Delegate Jim Barach

Barach

Imagine going to work every day knowing that, if you are laid off or want to work elsewhere, that you are contractually forbidden to seek work in your area of expertise. Millions of Americans face that very dilemma, thanks to the proliferation of noncompete clauses.

President Joe Biden has issued an executive order to the Federal Trade Commission, asking it to ban or limit the clauses that have become a plague on the working class, an issue I have been vocal about for years.

In fact, as a freshman member of the House of Delegates, one of the first bills I introduced in the 2021 legislative session was House Bill 3118, a measure calling for ending noncompete clauses for workers across the state.

To my frustration, the bill was shelved in the Workforce Development Committee (formerly the Labor Committee), of which I was a member. The Republican supermajority would have nothing to do with it. They are always pushing for having a free marketplace, except when it comes to benefiting workers.

After a 40-year career in television news, I decided to try to do away with the unfair binding “agreements” that were written into contracts preventing workers from seeking employment with other stations in the same market.

They are used under the guise of protecting the station’s “investment” into their staff members but are actually a way to prevent a bidding war from starting over top talent — which is nothing more than collusion to keep labor costs down.

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Workers would have to sit out an extended period, usually six months to a year, before signing on with a competitor. Most people cannot afford to be without an income that long and, even if they did, there was no guarantee a position at a competitor would remain open.

For decades, Major League Baseball relied on a similar scam known as the “Reserve Clause,” which required players to sit out before jumping teams. The only way a player could join another organization was if they were traded, meaning team management had all the power. The reserve clause was broken in the 1970s, when players were given the right of free agency. Salaries subsequently skyrocketed.

The idea of noncompete clauses was originated by companies to protect industry secrets from winding up in the hands of competitors, which is understandable. But the idea caught on with other trades that even eventually extended to janitorial services and sandwich shops. Apparently, lunch counters felt the need to protect closely guarded secrets on how to place deli meats and cheese between two slices of bread.

It’s unfortunate that we must rely on the federal government to bring freedom to workers. That should be the job of the state Legislature.

We are always promising to bring in jobs and attract new people to the state. Instead, the Republicans have used their power to pass the right-to-work law and take away the prevailing wage. Both of these have been called complete failures by Gov. Jim Justice, yet they remain intact. Instead of putting money into the pockets of our working families, we keep making things tougher. Republicans need to stop appeasing the businesses that donate to their campaigns and, instead, work for their constituents.

Getting back to baseball, before the end of the Reserve Clause, in 1970 the highest paid baseball player was Willie Mays, who made $135,000 that year. A decade later, after free agency, the top salary in 1980 was Nolan Ryan’s $1 million. That is a seven-fold increase in just 10 years. The highest-paid player today is making nearly $40 Million a year. And from what I understand, hardly any MLB teams have recently gone out of business.

Jim Barach, D-Kanawha, represents the 36th District in the West Virginia House of Delegates.

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