At the Capitol...

Prior to the 2016 State of the State address in the House Chamber at the State Capitol Complex, the halls and rotunda of the Capitol filled with people opposed to ‘Right-to-Work’ legislation and commenting on other labor issues that might be presented during the 2016 session.

CHARLESTON — Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee spent hours Thursday sparring over the provisions of a Right to Work law, slowing if only momentarily its fast-track passage to the floor of the Senate.

SB1, which Republicans have renamed “Workplace Freedom,” is the first of the GOP agenda bills, which the leadership says will turn around the state’s ailing economy and attract new businesses, create jobs and broaden a severely weakened tax base. The bill would allow non-union workers to be hired in a union shop and not pay dues or fees.

Senate President Bill Cole, R-Mercer, said the bill is a top priority because the Legislature “has a lot to do and little time to get it done.”

“Also, I think West Virginia needs to encourage job growth wherever and whenever it can and time is of the essence,” he said.

Cole may also be working against another clock. If the bill is sent to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin early in the session and the governor decides to veto it, Republicans will have time — and enough votes — to override that veto, particularly if former Wyoming County Sen. Daniel Hall is replaced with a Republican.

Hall resigned on Jan. 3 to take a job as a lobbyist with the National Rifle Association. He was elected as a Democrat in 2012, but switched parties in 2014 after the “red tide” of Republicans deadlocked the Senate 17-17. Hall’s flip turned the chamber over to Republican control.

Tomblin has said he is inclined to appoint a Democrat unless the State Supreme Court of Appeals directs him to do otherwise. The court is set to hear oral arguments Tuesday.

Cole said members of the Legislature in both chambers will have the time they need to participate in discussions about the bill. Judiciary Committee members took that time, meeting for more than four hours in two sessions.

Ken Hall, general secretary-treasurer of the Teamsters Union, is a native West Virginian, living just 10 miles from Charleston in Alum Creek. Hall negotiates contracts for UPS, the largest union contract in North America, in both Right to Work and non-Right to Work states. He said Right to Work laws “lower wages (and) affect ... health care and pensions.”

The Mountain State is often compared to Mississippi because the two states often vie for last in everything. Hall said Mississippi has had a Right to Work law for more than 55 years, but has not seen the growth the leadership believes will come to West Virginia. He also brought up Wisconsin, which lost 10,000 jobs just one year after its legislature enacted a Right to Work law.

Hall also said Right to Work states typically have higher workplace deaths than states that don’t.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, who peppered Hall with questions throughout the day, said West Virginia has the highest workplace death rate in the country, according to an AFL-CIO study. Contributing to that statistic, in 2010, 29 miners were killed in an explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine, which was not a union workplace, owned by Massey Energy. Two miners survived the explosion.

Terry Bowman, representing the nonprofit Union Conservatives, said he once belonged to the United Auto Workers (UAW), but left the union once Michigan enacted its Right to Work law in 2010. Bowman said he was upset because union leaders used his dues for a political agenda he opposed. Bowman lives in Ipsilanti, and works alongside union members at the Ford Motor Company, where he’s on the assembly line. He found out about the proposed Right to Work law for West Virginia by using Google Alerts, and contacted the state’s Business and Industry Council about traveling here.

He said he believes he could negotiate on his own a better wage and benefit package than UAW leaders could, but because of the union, he cannot represent himself and ask for a raise from Ford. Bowman acknowledged that he has union benefits, including three weeks of vacation.

“I’m being forced to accept their limitations,” he said. “The only way to protect an individual worker is to pass a workplace freedom law.”

Bowman said 88.9 percent of employees do negotiate their own raises and benefits, but said he didn’t know if everyone could do that.

Bowman got his own stream of questions from Democrats on the committee, including Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison. Romano asked if Bowman could have dropped out of the union before Right to Work was enacted and paid “Beck Dues,” named after the court case that determined union workers were not obligated to pay for a political agenda, only for the cost of labor negotiations.

“I didn’t drop out because I was trying to be inside the union to affect change,” Bowman said. Union officials would not change, and when the UAW contract expired, he quit. He said he disagreed with the UAW’s social agenda when it invited Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards to speak at a national convention. Bowman said he “exposed” the UAW for using union dues to bring in a speaker who is “very divisive.”

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