By Chris Townsend

June 14, 2024

 

Nobody would pick the U.S. state of Virginia to be a trade union organizing hotspot. But that’s what increasingly is happening, despite the fact that many of the unions and certainly the national AFL-CIO are oblivious to it.  Richmond the state capital was once the capital of the Confederacy, and Virginia is in many ways the ideological and historical home of U.S. segregationist and anti-union bigotry.

Virginia is seeing a significant and remarkable expansion of its small but wily labor movement. In a labor movement urgently in need of new union organizing experimentation it would certainly be of value to consider the situation in Virginia as one guide to expanded organizing work across the South. “Organize the South!” proponents would do well to take detailed notice of developments in Virginia.

A Huge Public School Teacher and Support Staff Win

The June 10 election win covering 27,000 Fairfax County public school teachers and support staff for union representation has won some publicity, and one would hope so. This win is certainly one of the largest victories for organized labor in the entire country for many years. A union alliance of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) managed to win this gigantic union election by substantial votes after a nearly 45-year legislative ban on collective bargaining in the state. Vote total margins were still a minority section of the total number of workers, but a total of 10,097 workers cast votes successfully for the union. No union win in Virginia has come close to this figure in decades. The United Steelworkers Union win at the then-Tenneco shipyard in Newport News in 1978 is the only comparable big win for labor in living memory.

With Virginia steadily trending away from its old reactionary politics, especially in the urban sections of the state, the retrograde union ban was partially lifted for local government workers and school district workers in 2019. After a pause imposed by pandemic conditions, the public sector has begun to organize in earnest. The lifting of the ban is historic, but merely allows for political jurisdictions willing to voluntarily deal with unions and collective bargaining to do so. Not a hands-down victory for labor, this has nonetheless led unions to increasingly mount political pressure on local lawmakers all with a majority of elected Democrats in charge.  This push has won agreement from dozens of Virginia political jurisdictions at the county, municipal, and school district levels to allow for union elections that will lead to the collective bargaining of a union contract for the labor organizations democratically selected by employees to represent them.

Big Public Organizing Underway Before the Teacher Win

With several dozen public jurisdictions across the state so far having passed legislation to allow their workers to organize, many thousands have voted for unionization and many are already covered by newly negotiated union contracts. There are virtually no statistics available to assess the growth of unions in the current moment, but an anecdotal tally would bear out that something more than 10,000 public workers have already organized this way even before the massive teacher win. Workers in public schools, fire departments, cities and counties, and police forces have all begun to organize, win elections, and bargain. More than a dozen unions have joined the public worker organizing wave, including Transit (ATU), State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Teachers (AFT and NEA), college faculty (AAUP-AFT), Communications Workers (CWA), Firefighters and emergency medical workers (IAFF), Service Employees (SEIU), the independent United Electrical Workers (UE), and others.

This real burst of new public sector union organizing is extraordinary and welcome. But it must be understood that this process will still require intensive and sustained work by the unions to consolidate the wins and actually recruit dues-paying members as a result. Large public bargaining units with few members will not benefit the labor movement much, and it is yet to be seen if all of the unions have come to grips with this reality. At least one local labor council – the Northern Virginia Labor Federation – is positioned to lend real support to the new groups of organized workers, but there is little information available about the other 3 local labor councils in this expansive state. The low profile “politics only” Virginia state AFL-CIO seems disengaged in regard to this new organizing, although their efforts were a significant part of how the union ban was partially lifted by the state legislature five years ago.

Private Sector Union Organizing Wave Hidden

Preceding the massive expansion of public sector union organizing in Virginia has been a completely unnoticed and equally unprecedented wave of organizing in the private sector. More than 90 private sector groups have been organized in the past 5 years in the state, led by more than 30 units organized by Workers United (WU-SEIU), 19 organized by the Operating Engineers (IUOE), and 17 by the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU). The food service union (UNITE-HERE) has won recognition for more than 1,500 workers, and the several Electrical Worker (IBEW) locals in the state have reported recruiting at least 1,000 members across Virginia. Other unions such as the Theatrical and Stage Workers (IATSE), Ironworkers (BSOIW), Machinists (IAM), and others have won shops through NLRB elections.

The reasons for the near complete lack of publicity for these wins are many. The embattled, tiny, and only fragmentary labor movement in Virginia is among them. In my time as the International Union organizing director for the Transit Union (ATU) I became aware of this trend in my own union’s success in Virginia, yet I had no idea what other unions may have been experiencing. The lack of members in the first place in Virginia, the lack of communication between unions, a dramatically shrunken and ambivalent news media, and the lack of any real statewide labor center that thinks about new organizing has all allowed this trend to unfold virtually unrecognized. This partial list of success is a start, but something more comprehensive is still required.

Can Labor Move Forward in Virginia?

The recent expansion of new union organizing in Virginia is remarkable, with credible figures indicating that many as 40,000 to even 50,000 public and private sector workers have organized in the past several years. Yet the reality and immediate challenges faced are stark. A steep climb for all the unions still exists in Virginia, with first union contracts needing to be negotiated, then enforced, and ultimately dues-paying members will need to be won. Longer-term union structures must be constructed. There is no question that the celebratory mood is to be welcomed in a labor movement in dire need of any good news, but the next steps towards consolidation of this progress is required immediately. There have also been a significant number of union organizing losses in Virginia over these same years, reminding the labor movement that Virginia remains a state saturated with fanatically anti-union employers and lawbreaking companies.

The fact that this trend would noticeably develop just a couple of miles across the Potomac River from the bulk of the labor movement leadership in Washington, DC is a cautionary tale. For several years now – not just months – this trend towards successful new union organizing in Virginia has unrolled and spread with no official labor movement recognition. The bulk of the unions still either ignore new organizing in this state, have never even thought of it, or offer only incidental small safaris into this state where the conventional labor wisdom is that organizing in Virginia is impossible. This primitive and incorrect view must be challenged and overcome.

The Left and Militants Must Do the Work

While the labor left wing in Virginia is very small, there are substantial numbers of activist and militant elements in the state’s labor unions. These forces are the primary reason many unions are able to exist, confronting the open shop conditions and battling as effectively as they can against the employers. These activists in the existing unions can be motivated to expand new organization of the unorganized but reaching them is a painstaking task. Few of the unions organize on any systematic or strategic basis, few actual experienced union organizers are deployed here, and the statewide AFL-CIO exists primarily to support the Democratic Party.

Some pre-pandemic curiosity by the national AFL-CIO was in evidence after I received a phone inquiry from federation staff asking about the success of the ATU I had overseen, but no further action was ever taken despite the unusually successful work of the transit union in Virginia.  The union organizing examples of the several unions now successfully organizing would be obvious guides for action by some additional unions, but this will not happen spontaneously.

Labor forces on the ground engaged in ongoing or recent union organizing must be rallied to meet and confer, where they can communicate and share experiences. They must be encouraged to expand the ongoing organizing activity to maintain the early momentum for new organization. Unions disinterested in this process must be bypassed so as to not allow the undecided and lethargic organizations to block any progress towards new campaigns. The local labor councils are likely to be allies in such a task, as they are acutely aware of the need to expand labor’s membership. There are also several major unions with little presence in Virginia that will need to be pulled-in, given that some of the existing unions in place appear to be hopelessly inactive. With several active and successful sectors for union organizing today well known – such as health care, federal contract companies, food processing, and the non-profit sector – the lack of any significant activity in these sections of the economy in Virginia is indefensible.

A Remarkable Moment Exists

A remarkable moment exists in the state of Virginia today, where tens of thousands of workers in the public and private sector both are now minimally “organized” even in the hostile conditions existing in this southern state. This moment has been generated by a number of private sector unions who decided independently to dedicate time and resources to this task, and who have now been joined by a substantial wave of public sector organizing.

Much work remains to consolidate and defend the current gains, and ultimately this work must be expanded tenfold for the labor movement in this state to move forward. With workers in two dozen sectors indicating their willingness to organize, the imperative to stimulate the unions to expanded activity is job number one. The task of the left is therefore clear, and any success in this endeavor is unlikely if the existing union leaderships are left to drift along in their narrow lanes with no recognition of the significance of the current moment.  

 

-Chris Townsend is a 45-year veteran of our labor movement was most recently the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) International Union Organizing Director. Previously he was an International Representative and Political Action Director for the United Electrical Workers Union (UE), and he has held local positions in both the SEIU and UFCW. He may be reached at cwtownsend52@gmail.com