The following editorial appeared in The Exponent Telegram on Nov. 18:
The recent West Virginia Legislature interim session served as a preview of the 2016 session, with significant debate already forming on right-to-work legislation.
Right-to-work allows workers to forego joining a union even if a business’ workforce is unionized. For instance, a coal mine’s workers might be represented by the United Mine Workers, but someone hired wouldn’t have to join the union. And current union members wouldn’t have to continue to be in the union unless they chose to be.
That freedom of choice is important as we see it, giving the worker the ability to determine whether the value of union representation merits their dues.
But it is also critical that West Virginia’s workforce be treated fairly, with livable pay, benefits and job security. Unions believe they bring that through the bargaining table and union contracts.
An independent West Virginia University study shed light on the discussion, pointing out that output and job opportunities have grown in right-to-work states, according to John Deskins, a WVU economics researcher who conducted the study.
His research also showed that employment growth in right-to-work states occurred in manufacturing, construction and mining, key job sectors in overall economic growth.
Deskins’ research was supported by other data supplied by James Shirk, a research fellow at Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, the Charleston Gazette-Mail reported.
“Right-to-work laws attract investments and jobs,” Shirk told lawmakers. He pointed out that most new foreign car manufacturing plants have been built in right-to-work states.
Unions strongly oppose right-to-work and understandably so. The study shows right-to-work laws cut into union membership about 20 percent.
Kenny Perdue, president of the AFL-CIO in West Virginia, said right-to-work laws hurt workers with lower wages and less workplace safety.
“A right-to-work law does nothing to help West Virginia’s economy, and hurts West Virginia working families,” Perdue said.
Both he and Teamsters Local 175 President Ken Hall said the proposed law is about attacking unions and making corporations more profitable.
And Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center for Budget Policy, saw no wisdom in reducing wages in a state that already has one of the lowest wage rates in the nation, the Gazette-Mail reported.
“You have to ask yourself, is that the best thing we can do for our economy today, to pay people less?” he said.
Another key point to consider, which Deskins’ study brought out: Right-to-work laws do not guarantee economic development and success.
Of the 10 states that added right-to-work laws from 1950 to 2011, five have economic growth above the national average and the other five have growth below the national average.
Obviously, lawmakers have much to consider regarding right-to-work as they prepare for the legislative session in January.
On one hand, forcing workers to join unions doesn’t seem fair. On the other, neither are lower wages and benefits.
Without companies, there are no jobs. But in a state with limited workforce, keeping those employees happy and productive is of paramount importance.
If West Virginia is to rebound from its economic malaise and prosper into the future, lawmakers must lead a bipartisan effort to bring business and labor together for the betterment of all.