In 1988, West Virginia Labor Commissioner Bill Carmichael publicly said Republican Gov. Arch Moore’s administration opposed “right to work,” a deceptively named law which dismantles union collective bargaining agreements.
“The present administration has opposed the concept of right to work, repeatedly claiming that right to work has no value for our state, is divisive and is not a needed or desired tool for economic development,” Commissioner Carmichael said.
Nearly 10 years later, Commissioner Carmichael’s son, then-Senate candidate Mitch Carmichael, provided an answer on a West Virginia AFL-CIO questionnaire expressing opposition to right to work. “If an employee receives the benefits of collective bargaining, they must share equally in the costs of representation,” he told us.
Fast forward to 2015. Neither the fundamental premise behind right to work, that not all who benefit from a collective bargaining agreement should have to contribute financially; nor the argument against it, that a union providing services for those in a collective bargaining agreement should not be forced to represent those who refuse to contribute, has changed.
But somehow, Sen. Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, first as the Senate’s Republican majority leader, then as Senate president, became the most vocal and powerful advocate for right to work, which by then had become the flagship issue for many Republican lawmakers.
So what happened? Corporate money happened.
In the 2014 election, the national political force of the Koch brothers flexed their muscles in West Virginia, donating $100,000 to a super PAC supporting then-Senate President Bill Cole, a Republican running for governor. By this time, the Koch brothers and other big-money interests had spent millions to push right to work to passage in several other states by hand-picking and funding legislative and gubernatorial candidates, and Cole was an outspoken advocate. Since then, the Kochs and other out-of-state interests have spent hundreds of millions (the Kochs spent $400 million in 2018 alone) on that effort in West Virginia and other states.
Cole lost his race, but Carmichael eagerly carried the torch. Carmichael’s Republican leadership closely followed the cookie-cutter Koch playbook — the Senate even mistakenly included in the law an irrelevant provision copied from another state.
Today, Carmichael points to right to work as a key reason he says West Virginia’s economy is prospering. He, along with the West Virginia Chamber and others controlling the legislative leadership, cherry pick jobs data that doesn’t convey the truth: Most job growth is tied to temporary boosts in industries linked to shale gas, the road bond or Medicaid expansion.
In reality, West Virginia had the sixth-highest unemployment rate in the nation for July 2019, and has had the third-weakest job growth since the beginning of the latest recession.
And one has to wonder, if right to work held such potential, why didn’t voters support Bill Cole? Because West Virginians see through the false promises of economic prosperity. They see the very rich getting richer, and the rest of us struggling.
The national Economic Policy Institute recently reported that CEO compensation has grown 940 percent since 1978, while typical worker compensation has risen only 12 percent (meanwhile national union density has declined from about 25 percent to about 10 percent over the same period).
They know the real reason multi-million-dollar corporations want right to work is to weaken unions.
When the Republican majority takes steps to repeal the state prevailing wage, roll back mine safety regulations or other workforce protections, privatize schools and pass other legislation intended to increase corporate profit at the expense of working families, the biggest obstacle is the unions.
Higher union-negotiated wages force nonunion employers to offer better wages. The work of labor unions led to the eight-hour work day, paid vacation, health care benefits, overtime compensation, paid sick leave, pensions, maternity leave and child labor laws. Countless federal regulations to ensure a safe workplace were put in place at the behest of unions.
Thanks to unions, the American public has come to expect decent and moral treatment of working people.
And, unfortunately for Mitch Carmichael and other Koch-controlled legislators, the American public, in particular West Virginians, respect and value unions for working to protect them. According to a Gallup poll, an ever-increasing percentage of Americans, 62 percent in 2018, approve of labor unions. Unions have polled even higher in West Virginia.
This Labor Day, let’s remember those brave, labor union pioneers whose blood sweat and tears provided opportunities for millions of working families to live what we now know as the American Dream. Next year, when we go to the polls to vote, let’s remember those trying to steal that dream away.