JULIE COONS

JULIE COONS

Virginia’s status as a right-to-work state is being threatened. Every economic development professional in the state will tell you that our right-to-work status is fundamental to our economic competitiveness. Most of the top-ranking states in annual rankings of the best states for business are right-to-work states. Any erosion of right to work risks our economic recovery and our economic future.

Many of our elected leaders recognize the importance of right to work, which is why legislation repealing or eroding it continues to fail when the normal legislative process is followed.

However, the normal legislative process was abandoned during the General Assembly's reconvened session on April 7. The 300-page bill to legalize recreational cannabis in Virginia was amended by Gov. Ralph Northam to include language barring employers from participating in unionization talks, threatening Virginia's status as the northernmost right-to-work state. That bill was then approved by the General Assembly only days after the amended version was released to the public.

While we respect the challenges of legislating in a virtual environment, there is no compelling reason to use this bill, right now, to make such a massive change to the business environment in Virginia. Nothing is unique about cannabis sales or cultivation that would require such a change in order for those businesses to succeed in Virginia.

To use cannabis legalization -- a bill that is a major component to needed criminal justice reform -- to erode right to work is extremely disappointing. Also disappointing is the fact that many members of our Northern Virginia delegation endorsed this process through their support for the bill.

To be clear, employees are free to unionize in Virginia right now. Right to work simply prohibits conditioning employment on union membership. Employees are free to form, join or not join a union, and employers are free to participate in this process under current Virginia law.

But this amendment would remove managers and owners from that process, upending the balance between employers and employees in a process that creates a fundamental change in how a business operates. Further, it would appear to violate employers’ rights under the federal National Labor Relations Act. This law allows employers to discuss with employees the employers’ views of unionization, so long as the employer does not threaten or coerce. This is a fundamental right that should not be eliminated.

We have all heard the reasons why right to work is a key element to Virginia’s competitiveness. Virginia ranked Number 1 on CNBC’s 2019 ranking of the Best States for Business. Four of the top five states on that list are right-to-work states, as are the states with which Virginia competes most closely for business relocations.

A 2019 survey of corporate executives found that 70% of them ranked right-to-work as important or very important for site selection. The Virginia Economic Development Partnership found that a repeal of right to work would cost the state $9 million to $25 million in lost general fund revenue and thousands of manufacturing jobs, based on the pre-COVID new business prospect pipeline.

The amendment is subject to re-enactment, meaning the General Assembly must vote on the bill again next year for it to become law. While the language in this bill is specific to cannabis companies, there is no doubt that should the legislature be successful in approving this language again, other business licenses would be under similar threat as the language could easily be copied and pasted throughout Virginia code.

Businesses should not operate under the threat of their licenses being revoked simply for exercising their rights under federal law. The business community will continue to express our disappointment in the process followed. We will make known our stalwart and long-standing opposition to the erosion of right to work in Virginia. We will hold our leaders accountable. The future of our economy is at stake.

Julie Coons is President and CEO of the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce.

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