CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Dealing blows to organized labor, West Virginia’s Republican-led Legislature cleared proposals Thursday to repeal the state’s prevailing wage for public construction jobs and make the Mountain State the 26th with a right-to-work law.
If the right-to-work law is signed by the governor, West Virginia will be following closely in the footsteps of Wisconsin, which became the country’s 25th right-to-work state in March. Wisconsin lawmakers also last year passed legislation that will greatly scale back the state’s prevailing-wage laws starting next year. Come Jan. 1, the compensation requirements will remain intact only for projects that receive federal money or that are commissioned by state government
In West Virginia, union workers looked on Thursday as the state’s House of Delegates debated right to work for about five hours before a tight 54-46 vote. Several Republicans joined Democrats in voting against the bill; some sided with unions, and others making libertarian arguments.
A few hours earlier, state senators had cast a party-line 18-16 vote on a bill to nix the government-set prevailing wages that are now paid to various workers on public construction projects, from plumbers to electricians.
Both bills passed the opposite chamber in similar partisan votes.
The prevailing wage repeal heads right to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, and right to work will likely follow suit after a procedural Senate vote. The Democrat will likely veto both.
However, Republicans need only a simple majority vote in both chambers to render his veto moot.
In an election year, Republicans painted both bills as part of a new path for a state that is shedding coal jobs, struggling with drug addiction and unemployment and hemorrhaging population. The two bills are top priorities for Republicans who, last year, took charge of the West Virginia Legislature for the first time in more than eight decades.
“We’ve done this the wrong way for too many years, over 50 years. It’s wrong!” Sen. Greg Boso, R-Nicholas, said about the prevailing wage.
Democrats considered both measures assaults on the working class — and specifically unions — that could lower worker pay. After the right-to-work vote, union workers in the stands shouted, “We’ll remember in November.”
“It was the labor movement that gave us the middle class, and we’re sitting here today thinking about kicking them in the teeth,” West Virginia state Del. Mike Caputo, D-Marion, said during the right-to-work debate.
The right-to-work bill prohibits companies from requiring employees to pay union dues as a condition of employment.
Conservative groups, including Americans for Prosperity, a group bankrolled by the wealthy industrialist Koch brothers, have peppered mailboxes, webpages and TV airwaves with ads promoting right to work. Unions have countered with their own media buys in opposition.
Democrats said right to work was part of a national push to undermine unions without providing any clear economic benefit, since workers could enjoy union representation without paying for it. Studies have shown varying economic results in right-to-work states, but they generally agree union membership drops.
Republicans contended that workers deserve the right to choose if they have to contribute to unions.
Tomblin promised a veto in a news release afterward, saying West Virginia should instead be “strengthening our workforce, combating substance abuse and creating new sites for development.”
On the proposed repeal of prevailing wages, Republicans soured on a compromise they struck with the Tomblin administration last year to change how to calculate the pay levels. The wage level is for both union and non-union contracts.
They believe the administration barely changed the wages, which many Republicans consider inflated. Tomblin’s office says the compromise was a reasonable one with accurate wages.
Last year’s bill also eliminated the prevailing wage for projects costing $500,000 or less. Federal projects, including most highway work, are subject to a separate federal prevailing wage.
This week, Republicans killed Democratic pushes to use the federal prevailing wage instead, give preference to in-state workers and further study how the repeal would affect the state’s already troubling finances.
On Thursday, Democrats worried the repeal wouldn’t actually save money, as Republicans contended it would. Democrats also were concerned it would drive contracts to out-of-state firms with cheap labor.
Republicans said the repeal would be a job creator.
“Maybe they won’t be paid as much on a particular job,” said Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan. “But there will be more jobs to do. That will generate activity and economic growth and prosperity.”