West Virginia: Prospect for a Right to Work Majority

West Virginia may soon become the nation’s 26th right to work state—making the number of right to work states a majority for the first time. The West Virginia Senate passed the right to work legislation, Senate Bill 1, on Thursday, January 21. The state’s House of Delegates, where Republicans hold a 64-36 majority, held a public hearing on the bill last Friday, January 29.

Republican lawmakers made passing right to work a priority after gaining control of both chambers of the legislature in 2014, in an effort to revive the state’s economy. “We’re the only state in the nation to have lost population,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael (R-Jackson). “If this bill providing workers the freedom to join a union or not join a union, if it gives one person a job, it’s worth doing.”

Carmichael’s characterization may be an exaggeration, but it isn’t far off the mark. West Virginia is only one of six states to lose population from 2013 to 2014, and second only to much larger Illinois in total numerical population decline. And as Ohio University economist Richard Vedder and researcher Jonathan Robe find in a CEI study, approximately 4.9 million people moved from non-right to work states to right to work ones during 2000-2009 (p. 11). Vedder and Robe also found that while real total personal income grew by an average of 123 percent during 1977-2012, it grew by 165 percent in right to work states and by only 99 percent in non-right to work ones.

While Democratic Governor Earl Ray Tomblin is expected to veto the bill, Republicans have enough votes to override the veto. The GOP’s narrow Senate majority was in doubt when Sen. Dan Hall, a Democrat-turned-Republican, resigned from the Senate. Democrats sued for the right to name his replacement, on the grounds that he was elected as a Democrat, but the state Supreme Court sided with the GOP lawmakers. Hall’s successor, Sue Cline, was sworn in on January 25 and is expected to vote to override Tomblin’s veto.

For West Virginia, right to work will mean an improved economic climate. In a study commissioned by the state legislature, West Virginia University (WVU) economics professor John Deskins estimates that right to work law policies lead to long-run employment growth rates around 0.4 percent higher and state GDP growth rates around 0.5 percent higher than in non-right to work states. The union-backed Economic Policy Institute (EPI) has criticized the WVU study, citing problems with the data. But as Charleston Gazette-Mail reporter David Gutman notes, EPI’s criticism doesn’t undermine Deskins’s conclusions:

The most basic error that the EPI said it found in the WVU study is that researchers simply got the year wrong for when certain states adopted right to work laws.

Utah adopted a right to work law in 1955 and Texas did so in 1947, the new study writes, but, WVU wrote that Utah became right to work in 1995 and Texas did so in 1993.

Deskins acknowledged the error in the date for Utah, but said the error, if corrected, would actually strengthen his team’s conclusions.


Deskins said several of the EPI’s other allegations make clear that it is being disingenuous.

“They are simply trying to discredit any report that does not support the financial position of their sponsoring organizations, regardless of scientific merit,” Deskins said. “Furthermore, aside from any numbers, the basic idea that businesses are going to be more attracted to locations with more flexible labor markets is wholly consistent with basic economic theory.”

For states, the enactment of right to work laws by their neighbors will likely mean increased competition to attract businesses. And many businesses consider labor flexibility when deciding to relocate or expand in new areas. Since 2012, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin have adopted right to work laws (and Missouri came close). With this kind of momentum in favor of right to work, more states may follow suit.

For unions, it will mean having to work harder to attract members. Metro News columnist Hoppy Percheval says that unions may have to consider shifting to a members-only model—which may also become a possibility for public sector unions if the U.S. Supreme Court sides with the petitioners in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association.

For workers, it will mean greater protection of their First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and association—a consideration that newspapers in the state have cited in endorsing the bill. The Charleston Gazette-Mail’s January 18 editorial states:

As it stands now, employees in union shops have little say in how their union dues are spent. Sure, there is a limited exception in which members who object to the union’s political activities can pay slightly reduced dues, but ask any union member how easy it is to get that paperwork completed. So generally, in rejecting a right-to-work law, Democrats are supporting forced unionization.

Meanwhile, The Parkersburg News and Sentinel addresses how right to work could influence two areas of concern to West Virginians, energy policy and workplace safety. The editorial argues that:

Workplace freedom does not prevent workers from joining unions, nor does it stop collective bargaining. In fact, it does nothing directly to unions. It simply gives workers the opportunity to decide for themselves.

For example, had workplace freedom been in place over the past eight years, it would have given coal miners the choice about whether to pay dues to the United Mine Workers of America, which lent heavy support to President Barack Obama during two elections. Those miners have since paid the price for Obama’s war on coal and reasonably priced electricity.

Safety laws, and their enforcement, would also remain untouched by workplace freedom.

The latter point is important. Part of unions’ campaign against right to work in West Virginia has been an effort to stoke fears of increased workplace injuries. The West Virginia AFL-CIO has gone so far as to claim that right to work will lead to a 54 percent increase in workplace injuries. Experience suggests otherwise (the outrageous figures aside). Michigan enacted a right to work law in March 2013, and as the Mackinac Center’s Jason Hart notes: “Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that Michigan’s rate of nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses was lower in 2013 than in 2012, and lower still in 2014.”