By Matt Kaminer
State and federal elections won’t be the only items on the ballot this Election Day. Virginians will be asked to vote on two state constitutional amendments, the first proposals since 2012, when an amendment to Article IV of the constitution passed with over 80 percent of the vote. Headlining the amendments on the Nov. 8 ballot is the Virginia “Right to Work” amendment, known as Amendment One.
A Virginia law which took effect in 1947 already bans union membership as a condition of employment, the concept known as “right to work.” However, Amendment One would add a section to the Virginia Constitution to prevent future General Assemblies from changing the statute.
Supporters of the amendment are concerned that future legislators, as well as current state Attorney General Mark Herring, might not enforce certain laws, including the right to work statute. Herring, Republicans argue, has displayed a willingness to act against state regulations, including declining to enforce Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage in January 2014 and providing in-state tuition for some undocumented workers.
“We have an unprecedented activist right down the hill in that building,” Sen. Thomas A. Garrett Jr. (R-Buckingham) told The Washington Post. “That gentleman took an oath to uphold the laws of Virginia and has at every turn worked to undermine the laws of Virginia.”
Opponents of the amendment consider it unnecessary because there is already a state law in place that prevents employers from explicitly requiring or prohibiting union membership. Democrats contend that there has not been any significant attack on the right to work statute in its near 70-year history.
“In the 41 years that I’ve been here, nobody has ever put in a bill to repeal the right to work,” Senate
Minority Leader Richard Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said to The Roanoke Times.
Additionally, Herring’s supporters believe he has ruled consistently with the values of the state.
“Attorney General Herring [has] been absolutely right on the law with marriage equality and in-state tuition for DREAMers . . . and no one is even challenging Virginia’s right to work laws,” Herring’s spokesperson, Michael Kelly, said via email.
Amendment One was approved for the ballot during two separate sessions of the General Assembly by a party line vote; Republicans hold a single seat majority in the state Senate and a near two-thirds majority in the House.
The Virginia AFL-CIO has spoken out against the proposed amendment, maintaining a “Vote No to 1”page on its website.
“Amendment One is designed by big business to silence the voices of hardworking Virginians,” the state AFL-CIO says on its website. “We need policies that protect workers, put our families first, and help strengthen our communities.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, fewer than 6 percent of Virginia workers were in unions in 2015 compared to 11 percent nationally.
Conversely, the Virginia Chamber of Commerce has expressed support for the amendment; its political action committee set up a group called “The Workplace Freedom Committee,” which will run statewide TV and online ads in favor of the proposal and its ability to bring businesses to Virginia.
Virginia is one of 26 states with a right to work law, and eight of those states also have a constitutional right to work provision.
The second proposed amendment voters will face is an extension of a current local option property tax exemption for surviving spouses of first responders, including law enforcement officers, firefighters, search and rescue personnel members or emergency medical services personnel member killed in the line of duty. The amendment proposal passed the legislature without opposition.
The exemption would apply only to the surviving spouse’s primary place of residence, and the recipient would lose the exemption is he or she remarries. . The amendment would expand upon a 2010 state constitutional amendment that provided the possibility of property tax exemptions to veterans if they had a permanent and total disability as a result of military service. That proposal passed with over 75 percent of the vote.