West Virginia Democrats Going After Union Vote

CHARLESTON (AP) – Brian Legg, a union driver for UPS in West Virginia, made it clear in 2014 that he wasn’t fond of the president and his policies on coal, even if Barack Obama’s name wasn’t on the ballot.

Because of their dislike for Obama, Legg and many union colleagues who would typically have voted for union-friendly Democrats instead cast votes for Republicans, who became the state’s majority party for the first time in more than eight decades.

But now, following the Republican-led passage earlier this year of so-called right-to-work legislation, Democratic incumbents and candidates are hoping to run a buyer’s remorse campaign to attract union voters and help reclaim some power in the Legislature.

The GOP has an 18-16 Senate edge, and a 64-36 House majority.

The state’s Democrats have a difficult precedent to overcome, though. Rallying against right-to-work laws did not help Democrats at the polls in Indiana in 2012 and Michigan in 2014. Republicans kept their majorities and governorships in both states.

“I know that I won’t vote for a Republican in my area again,” Legg said. “I feel let down.”

In 2014, when anti-Obama sentiment was running high in West Virginia, union households favored Democrat Natalie Tennant by only 3 percentage points, according to an exit poll of 1,391 voters conducted for the AP and television networks. Tennant lost her bid for the U.S. Senate to Republican Shelley Moore Capito.

State Democratic Party internal polling showed union members voting for Democrats over Republicans along similarly tight margins.

Right-to-work legislation prohibits companies from requiring workers to pay union dues as a condition of their employment. Democrats argued that the legislation would diminish union bargaining power by letting workers benefit from representation without paying for it.

Republicans countered that the bill offered a path to bring new businesses to a state suffering from unemployment, drug abuse, population loss and a coal industry in dire straits. Coal is hampered by a variety of economic, geological and regulatory factors.

Right-to-work’s passage was particularly historic in a state defined by bloody battles over organized labor at coal mines. At the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, thousands of striking miners fought a shooting war with law enforcement and replacement workers, ending in dozens of deaths. One year earlier, 10 people had died in Matewan in a skirmish over eviction notices served to miners who had joined the union.

Both in West Virginia and nationally, union membership has been on the decline for decades.

In addition to right-to-work legislation, Republicans also voted this year to eliminate government-set wages for public construction jobs in the state. Both bills passed along Republican party lines, drew union backlash and were vetoed by Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. The GOP, needing only a simple majority to do so, overrode the vetoes.

In a few months, West Virginian voters will determine whether those issues matter enough to negatively affect Republicans’ power.

Senate President Bill Cole, the lead Republican running in an open governor’s race, spearheaded the right-to-work push. The Democrats in the race – Jim Justice, Jeff Kessler and Booth Goodwin – all oppose right-to-work. Democrats still hold all but one statewide constitutional office on this year’s ballot, and they’re all running for re-election except for Tomblin, who faces term limits, and Auditor Glen Gainer, who opted against a re-election bid. About half the Senate and all of the House of Delegates slots are on the ballot.

Cole has said right-to-work gives workers freedom over their union ties, and could make labor groups offer a better product.

The passage of right-to-work legislation in other states has appeared not to have had much of an effect on Republicans’ popularity. In, Michigan, which has a strong history of union activity in connection with the auto industry, lawmakers passed right-to-work legislation that took effect in 2013. Nonetheless, Gov. Rick Snyder won re-election and Republicans extended their legislative majorities in 2014.

In Indiana, where lawmakers approved right-to-work legislation in 2012, Republicans emerged with bigger majorities in the General Assembly in that year’s election. Republican Gov. Mike Pence also won his first term in 2012.

Also in 2012, Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker survived a recall election spurred by Democratic anger over a separate law that effectively ended collective bargaining for most public workers. Republicans also are expected to retain legislative control in this year’s elections, despite passing right-to-work legislation last year.

In Ohio, however, labor groups did score a victory at the polls in 2011, when voters widely favored repealing a law signed by Republican Gov. John Kasich that curbed collective bargaining rights for the state’s public workers.