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WV Senate passes right-to-work on party line, as court decision looms

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WV Senate passes right-to-work on party line, as court decision looms
By David Gutman, Political Reporter, WV Gazette Mail

The West Virginia Senate passed a controversial “right-to-work” bill Thursday, by the barest of margins, just hours or days before a state Supreme Court ruling could switch the balance of power in the Senate.

With the Senate galleries packed with union members opposing the bill, and with the pending court decision leaving it unclear how much longer Republicans may control the Senate, the bill passed by a vote of 17-16 after more than 90 minutes of sometimes-contentious debate. Every Republican voted yes, every Democrat voted no.

A decision from the state Supreme Court, on which party will get to fill a vacant Senate seat, is expected soon. A court ruling in favor of the Democrats would likely deadlock the Senate, blocking controversial legislation like the right-to-work bill. It would also leave Republicans without the majority necessary to overturn an expected veto from Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin; a spokeswoman for the governor said Thursday that Tomblin “does not believe West Virginia needs a right-to-work law.” Right-to-work laws, which are in effect in 25 other states, allow workers in unionized workplaces to opt out of paying union fees, even though the union must represent and negotiate for every worker.

West Virginia is at the bottom or near the bottom of nearly every economic ranking, Republicans argued, and state leaders have to do something different.

Right-to-work will only make things worse, Democrats countered.

Republicans argued that the status quo is unfair to workers who don’t want to pay union fees and that passing right to work will attract businesses to West Virginia.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan, noted that West Virginia is the only state to lose population over the last half century.

“People have left this state because they’ve had to find employment,” Trump said. “For too long this state has had an inhospitable business climate, this bill is one of many measures that this body will consider that is designed to change that.

“There is no certainty about any of this,” Trump continued, conceding that no one is sure whether right to work will actually help. “I ask that you take us at our words, that we believe it will.”

Democrats argued that the bill is an effort to cripple unions and will lead to lower wages and more dangerous workplaces.

Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, said the bill would lead to free-riders -- people who benefit from union representation and contracts but don’t have to pay fees.

“You don’t get something for nothing and that’s what this bill certainly encourages,” Kessler said. “It encourages breaking up unions for no other reason than for political reasons.

”Republicans cited a questioned West Virginia University study that said passing a right-to-work law will lead to faster job and economic growth.

The economic claims of both sides -- increased employment and lower wages -- are hotly disputed, but almost every reputable study of right-to-work laws agrees that they lower union membership.

The debate was spirited, but, with one exception, polite.

At one point, Sen. Robert Karnes, R-Upshur, pointed to union members, watching from the packed galleries above the Senate, and made an accusation.

“The people who support right to work, they’re out working,” Karnes said. “The free-riders are right up there.”

That provoked loud boos from the audience. Sen. Doug Facemire, D-Braxton, defended those in attendance

“Shame on any one of us,” he told his fellow senators, “who disrespects the people who come down here to represent what is near and dear to their heart.”

Senate President Bill Cole, R-Mercer, and a candidate for governor, twice had to use his gavel to silence the crowd.

Sen. Ron Miller, D-Greenbrier, decried the re-branding of the legislation -- the bill is called the West Virginia Workplace Freedom Act.

He quoted George Orwell: “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful,” Miller said. “This is not freedom for workers, it is a busting of workers’ protection.”

In total, seven Democrats spoke against the bill.

Several cited state Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette, a Democrat who, last week, told a Senate committee that right to work had never been an issue in recruiting businesses to the state.

They said the real problems plaguing the state are a lack of flat land, crumbling roads and an under-educated, under-trained workforce.

“It’s like a television ad, it’s an illusion,” Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson, said of right-to-work. “It’s disingenuous to tell people that this is going to do it, this is going to turn our state around.”

Five Republicans spoke in support of the bill, making it clear that they did not think right to work, by itself, was a cure-all.

“I want to make sure that people in West Virginia are making more money, not less, and the only way that we’re capable of doing that is to have more jobs,” Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, said. “Will this fix it? We don’t know, but we know one thing for certain, what we’ve been doing hasn’t worked.”

The bill next heads to the House of Delegates, where Republicans hold a sizable majority.