The General Assembly's self-described socialist member is sponsoring legislation to repeal the state's right-to-work law, which says employees can't be forced to join a labor union.
Del. Lee Carter, a democratic socialist inspired by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, has filed House Bill 1806, which could force workers in Virginia to become union members and pay union dues as a condition of their employment.
Virginia is among 27 right-to-work states — a fact that business leaders often point to with pride. Carter's bill aims to change that.
"Repealing it is bigger than just the actual technical changes that it would make," said Thomas McIntire, Carter's legislative aide. "It sends a signal to workers in Virginia saying that your voice matters."
In right-to-work states, a workplace where employees are represented by a union is considered an "open shop": People can work there without joining the union, and they can cancel their union membership at any time.
Critics of right-to-work laws say this allows freeloading: Non-union employees don't pay union dues, but they benefit from the collective bargaining agreements and higher salaries that the union negotiates.
Carter ran as a Democrat in winning the 50th House District seat representing Manassas and part of Prince William County in 2018. He wants to repeal the state law that says, "No person shall be required by an employer to become or remain a member of any labor union or labor organization as a condition of employment or continuation of employment by such employer."
HB 1806 would allow "agency shops" or "union shops," where all employees must pay the union either dues or a service fee.
"A collective bargaining agreement may include a provision establishing an agency shop or a union shop," the bill says. "If such a provision is agreed to, the employer shall enforce it by deducting from the salary payments to members of the bargaining unit the dues required of membership in the labor union, or, for nonmembers thereof, a fee equivalent to such dues."
McIntire said the fees would help the union provide better support to employees in the workplace.
Supporters of right-to-work laws say they are good for the economy.
States without such laws tend to have higher unemployment and a higher cost of living, said Scott Mayausky, commissioner of the revenue in Stafford County, Virginia. That's because compulsory union membership drives up the cost of goods and services, he said.
In such situations, a company's costs can increase — and that worries Mayausky the most.
"Statistically, if you look at a lot of the Rust Belt states that are big union states, those are the ones that have been struggling economically, and a lot of their companies are leaving," Mayausky said.
Mayausky had two grandfathers who were coal miners, so he understands the good that unions can bring. But he believes this isn't the time for repealing the right-to-work law in Virginia.
"We're doing very well," Mayausky said. "I don't understand the push to change the right-to-work law when things seem to be headed in the right direction."
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Virginia has about 176,000 union members — approximately 4.6 percent of wage and salary workers in the state.
McIntire said it was important for Carter to file the bill, which is pending before the House Rules Committee.
"This is at the core of what Del. Carter stands for when it comes to worker rights," McIntire said. "It's important to get this in now as early as possible."