Right-to-Work: VA Labor History

Right-to-Work: VA Labor History


In 2019, Oxfam rated Virginia the worst state in the nation for workers. “Right to work” laws have racist origins and disproportionately affect black and brown workers today. In this Night School session, we will provide a brief overview of the history of labor in Virginia, from slavery, to Right to Work’s Jim Crow origins, to why we need to end it today. This session will be part lecture, and part collaborative brainstorming of approaches and strategies to help advance our campaign to repeal right-to-work.

Below, you will find a recommended reading list and a recording of the session.

Reading List

The Half has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist


Slavery, Jim Crow and origins of the anti-labor South

The origins of today’s right-to-work laws in Virginia go all the way back to the first arrival of slaves in the US in 1619 and the emergence of slavery laws. These laws were the result of several factors, including fear of slaves in the wake of several rebellions over the course of the 17th century, especially Bacon’s Rebellion, as well as the need to divide and demarcate the line between white indentured servants and Black slaves from Africa. By 1705, Virginia introduced the first slave laws to shore up the power of the ruling class by formally establishing the nature of Virginian slavery.

Throughout the Antebellum period, the role of slaves was not confined to plantations; slaves were also commonly conscripted into domestic labor or forced to perform industrial labor throughout the South. After the end of the Civil War in 1865, the 13th Amendment formally ended slavery in the United States — though with the significant caveat of permitting prisoners to be forced to perform labor just as slaves previously were. But in response, all formerly slave-owning states passed a series of Black Codes which were intended to exclude Black workers from the economic system, forcing them to subsist on their own. In some states, Black Americans were not even permitted to leave the towns of their birth without special permission from the local sheriff. And throughout the South, the prisoner loophole of the 13th Amendment incentivized states to arrest large numbers of Black Americans and force them back into a state of slavery.

During the Reconstruction Era, many Black Codes were ruled unconstitutional. However, in 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes was able to secure the support of the South for his accession to the presidency in exchange for the withdrawal of federal troops from throughout the South. By the end of the 19th century, Jim Crow laws had emerged to take the place of the former Black Codes. In the shameful ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, the Supreme Court upheld the principle of separate but equal in the schools and by extension granted legal legitimacy to the Jim Crow regime.


Southern Racial Capitalism

Much of the labor movement that emerged in the 1870s was deeply racist in its own ways. Some unions — for instance, the Knights of Labor — were relatively egalitarian. But others, such as the American Federation of Labor, allowed their local affiliates to remain segregated and advocated for the Chinese Exclusion Act.

But capitalists of the era were often far more explicit about their goal of dividing the labor movement along racial lines as a way to preserve power. One major figure representing the forces of racial capitalism in the South was Vance Muse, an oil industry businessman, lobbyist and major supporter of the Christian American Association. Muse was notorious for being an anti-Semite and anti-union activist who helped to conceptualize the idea of right-to-work laws, which he pushed across the South as a means to keep Black and white workers separated. In addition, part of Muse’s vision for labor was to make workers legally and financially responsible for striking, so that even peaceful strikers could get ticketed for inciting violence. Much of the development of modern right-to-work laws comes from people like Muse.


What is Right-to-Work?

Right-to-work laws have a superficially reasonable purpose: they require that even workers who are not members of a union can enjoy the benefits of a union-negotiated contract. But the express intention of these laws was to drastically cut union membership and unions’ financial resources by encouraging workers not to join their unions because they could still receive the same benefits. In the wake of the emergence of right-to-work laws, many unions were crippled and disappeared.

Right-to-work laws arrived in Virginia in the aftermath of the would-be Virginia Electric and Power Company (VEPCO) strike of 1946, when VEPCO workers informed the governor that they were planning to strike. In response, the Virginia governor threatened to seize VEPCO and mobilize local militias against the strikers, and ultimately, the workers chose to back down out of fear for their safety. But in the aftermath, Vance Muse came to Virginia and convinced lawmakers that similar future mobilizations could be prevented from ever arising by passing a right-to-work law. The result was the passage, in 1947, of Virginia’s right-to-work law.


Right-to-work in Virginia Today

Historically, the links between Jim Crow and right-to-work laws are clear: Virginia’s right-to-work law was a direct response to the and the labor movement, and one of its primary goals was to limit the power of workers, including the people of color who disproportionately made up Virginia’s labor force.

Virginia remains a bad state for labor. In 2019, Oxfam rated Virginia as the worst state in the United States for workers and worker protections, the worst state for worker compensation and the worst state for the rights of workers to organize. The COVID-19 pandemic has also highlighted some of the racial disparities affecting workers of color. For instance, in late 2020, the Latinx community represents only 17% of Fairfax County’s population but 65% of the county’s COVID-19 cases. This is largely because the types of jobs that Latinx workers are likely to hold are far less likely to provide robust protections for health and safety during a pandemic. 

In 2020, Lee Carter — the only democratic socialist delegate in the Virginia House of Delegates — proposed a bill to repeal Virginia’s right-to-work law. But although the bill had the full support of the House Labor and Commerce Committee, it was shut down by the Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP), which surveyed a small but unknown number of CEOs who said that repealing the right-to-work law would cost the state economic development. As soon as the VEDP published their survey results, Carter’s bill was killed in committee. 

This result is discouraging, but it doesn’t mean that the fight to repeal right-to-work in Virginia is over. DSA is actively campaigning to pass the PRO (Protecting the Right to Organize) Act, key parts of which are included in the latest reconciliation bill draft, such as banning the replacement of striking workers and fining employers $50,000 per labor violation instead of $0 — the biggest labor rights advancement in generations.