West Virginia AFL-CIO Reacts to State Supreme Court Ruling Upholding Right to Work

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Supporting the rights of individual workers has cost a pro-union West Virginia Supreme Court justice the backing of the state’s AFL-CIO. That’s because the judge backed one worker right that unions don’t recognize: the right of the worker to decide whether they want to be in a union.

In a unanimous but still conflicted ruling released Tuesday, the West Virginia justices upheld the state’s right to work law. That means that union-management contracts cannot include clauses that force workers to either join a union or pay a regular fee to a union as a condition of employment. While all four justices hearing the case agreed the law was constitutional, Justices John Hutchison and Margaret Workman nevertheless wrote concurring opinions laying out their support for unions and their personal distaste for the right to work law.

The issue was simple for Hutchison: Like it or not, the fact that these laws are constitutional was settled a long time ago. A total of 27 states have them. “The law dictates that I must concur because the gist of the majority opinion is true: what the Legislature gives, the Legislature can constitutionally take away. … No other court in America has found a right-to-work legislative enactment unconstitutional, and the majority opinion has done nothing different.”

Workman made a similar point. In an opinion that otherwise read like a pro-union op-ed, she noted that if the West Virginia justices declared the law unconstitutional, the U.S. Supreme Court would be certain to step in and overturn them.

West Virginia AFL-CIO President Josh Sword, however, wasn’t having any of this. He rescinded his organization’s prior backing of Hutchinson for reelection.

“Despite his statements both to us and in his concurring opinion that he values the work of unions, his vote to concur with the politically motivated decision in support of the state’s ‘Right to Work’ law made clear to us that he has put the interests of out-of-state corporations over the interests of West Virginia working families,” Sword told the West Virginia Record. “The leaders of the West Virginia AFL-CIO and its affiliates can in no way support such a candidate.”

Note that Sword doesn’t bother to get into the specifics of what the law does: Give an individual worker the right to say “no thank you” to a union and keep his paycheck intact. Instead, he contended that workers are ripping off unions if they refused to hand over part of their paycheck.

“What Justice Hutchison did in his concurring opinion was that he essentially took the floor and gave a speech about how great unions are and how important they are. But when it came down to it, he voted against working families of West Virginia,” Sword fumed. 

Actually, Hutchison voted the way he did because he believed the law was clear on this point.