You Cant Organize a Union in Virginia?


Former Amalgamated Transit Union Organizing Director Chris Townsend provides commentary on the progression of the labor movement in Virginia and what its hangups are


When I moved to Northern Virginia 30 years ago from upstate New York I was well aware that “union density” – as academics call it – was going to be low. Virginia is an historically right-wing state, home base of the Confederacy, and a bastion of reaction and racism for nearly four centuries.

But I was hopeful; and I figured that given the proximity to Washington D.C. just across the Potomac River – which did have many different union strongholds and outposts – that the situation would not be that bad. But once I had lived here for a while and became familiar with the organized labor terrain, it looked to me that when one crosses the Potomac River you enter a largely union-free territory. 

Thirty years ago, in Northern Virginia there were only small, unionized groups here and there of federal employees, postal employees, workers on military bases, some dwindling railroad union members, odds and ends from the building trades unions, and some gas, electric, and water utility workers.

There were also scattered holdout public sector members who had outlasted the Virginia state legislative ban on state and local public collective bargaining. A miserable and outrageous ban foisted on the public workforce by a state Supreme Court ruling and state legislative action in the late 1970’s and 80’s.

Pushed by an alliance of big industry, Republicans, and many Democrats. Some of the remaining fragments of union membership were the handfuls of union members in supermarkets and in a select few niche industries which were mostly extensions from their larger bases in Maryland and DC. 

On the brighter side, union membership at the large Metro transit system spills over from DC and Maryland and was unionized. The region’s two big airports – National and Dulles – were both pockets of significant union membership.

Back then if you fought the traffic and ventured west or south in the region you also might find a few long-ago-organized factories, all of which were already downsized or rapidly looking like plant closing candidates. And the farther you traveled the thinner things got.

There were some union islands around Richmond in the chemical and tobacco industries, but all receded as the industries shrank. Down in southeast Virginia there were pockets of union membership in the military industries, most notably the large shipyard in Newport News – which was the last truly large successful union organizing push in this state.

And that was 45 years ago. Go out to the southwest corner of Virginia and there were some union fragments around Roanoke, and farther on the once significant coal miner’s union presence was evident but had already been eroding for decades. The healthcare industry and higher education industries were completely unorganized then, as they are today despite a flurry of union organizing activity across the country in these sectors. 

Once in a while back then I would hear a second-hand report that one or another worksite was unionizing or even having an NLRB election. But it was slim pickings. There was no locally based labor council in Northern Virginia until 1996, and its origination had more to do with Maryland and DC based unions wanting to play politics in Virginia elections, and not a desire to dig-in and organize the growing masses of unorganized.

The common lament offered by the various unions – most of them headquartered just a few miles away in Washington, DC, was that “You can’t organize in Virginia.” Or, “This is a right-to-work state and you just can’t organize.” My favorite was when I would hear that, “Unions aren’t allowed in Virginia.”

All these explanations seemed to me to be nothing more than self-serving excuses for inaction. Union organizing wasn’t being defeated in Northern Virginia, it wasn’t happening at all. The existing foundations of the labor movement – most of what I have just chronicled here – was being wrecked and liquidated with virtually no new blood being added. 

There is no doubt that union organizing is difficult in Virginia, but that would be true no matter where workers were trying to join a union today. Today, more than half of the states – and now our entire public sector – are subjected to open shop “right-to-work” status. 

In my opinion and experience here the greatest reason why there has been so little union organizing in Virginia is that the labor movement refuses even to try to organize. This state has been forfeited to the bosses, written-off by the National and International union leaderships who sit in comfort just across the Potomac River. Many sitting on top of gigantic treasuries.

The large amalgamated local unions based across the river rarely venture over into Virginia by all accounts. Broad generalizations like this must be offered only carefully, but the NLRB statistics will attest to the drought of new union organizing in Virginia for decades now.

The “union density” measure that hovered around 9 percent of the Virginia workforce when I moved here in 1993 has today slumped to 3% or 4% of the workforce. A little more slippage and the Virginia labor movement will just be a statistical anomaly. 

Oblivion awaits unless the labor movement faces this crisis and takes action. When I was appointed to the position of International Union Organizing Director for the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) in late 2013 I figured I would have the chance to see if organizing in Virginia was possible, or impossible.

The results were far better than I was expecting, and they bolstered my contention that if labor would seriously try to organize the unorganized in Virginia, some measurable results would follow.

Working with my skeleton crew of organizers, and focusing only on the transit industry, over a 7-year period ATU organized 9 new transit groups in northern Virginia, and 1 in Richmond. All were private transit companies and were NLRB union elections, and almost 1,000 workers were organized. Union membership levels in these shops have remained high after first contracts were negotiated and ratified by the members. 

Most of the Virginia transit organizing faced substantial or even ferocious employer resistance. But several were surprisingly smooth and uneventful campaigns, where those employers refrained from illegal anti-union actions.

Political and community support for the Northern Virginia units was strong, and a contributing factor to our success. Most of the workers were bus operators and mechanics, most were African American, and all supported the union as a path to win substantial wage increases, benefits that were meaningful, and better working conditions.

Bargaining gains steadily made with the large ATU local union in Washington DC and Maryland also acted as a “north star” to the transit workers mired in poverty over in Virginia. As I write this, even after my recent retirement from ATU, the union is leading another NLRB campaign in southeast Virginia and has won another unit of 129 transit workers.

There is also a longer-term campaign underway to organize a group of 80 public sector transit workers in Charlottesville. The ATU organizing wave shows all indications of continuing in Virginia. 

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, this significant union organizing success in Virginia is unknown, and unrecognized. The larger labor movement is incapable of tracking these developments, and therefore cannot recognize the potential here for other unions.

The revitalized Northern Virginia regional labor council did play a key role in several of the ATU wins, and to their credit they have sensed the growing opportunities for organizing at least in this corner of the state. Led by the dynamic and progressive Ginny Diamond, the labor council has initiated outreach to several unions to push them to experiment with organizing in the region.

Several have responded, and with the help of the Starbucks movement Workers United (SEIU) has won 15 new units across Virginia in just the past two years. The Newsguild (CWA) has also organized more than 200 media workers in Northern Virginia so far.

These private sector organizing wins are also bolstered by union efforts aimed at the local and school district workers, with the first election having been won for the firefighters and paramedics in the City of Alexandria by the Firefighters Union (IAFF).

There are various reasons why the union organizing climate in Virginia has begun to shift. Growth in population, an influx of immigrants, and a wide diversification of the economy because of these changes are among them. The growth in the numbers of young workers willing to support unionization is a big plus as well.

The early 2020 lifting of the ban on collective bargaining for local government and school district employees by the Virginia Legislature is also a confirmation of the shifting political sands in the state.

State employees are still subject to the retrograde ban, but the partial lifting of the ban has led half a dozen unions to investigate the renewed organization of the local and school district public employee groups. The emergence of a small but outspoken faction of pro-union Democrats in local and state politics has been a factor as well. This trend is welcomed, although without a big push from unions to take advantage of these fresh winds the Democrats are at risk of backpedaling on union questions. 

As the ATU experience confirms, if a union will seriously consider Virginia as a target for new organizing, get busy contacting workers and running elections where the interest is highest, new members can be won. I reject any notion that our ATU experience was a fluke, or that somehow our jurisdiction was easier or simpler than other industries might offer.

My ability to focus on Virginia as a specific target was also sporadic at best. Those of us who live in Virginia and find ourselves a part of the left wing now face an obligation at this crucial moment. Legendary union organizer and strategist William Z. Foster offered that “The left wing must do the work.” 

He observed as far back as 1925 that, “The organization of the unorganized millions of workers is primarily the task of the left wing. There is no other section of the labor movement possessing the necessary courage, energy, and understanding to carry through this basic work.”

In sum, union organizing gains in Virginia can be made if we launch and support the workplace rebellions for unionization in the current climate. Established unions and incipient independent organizations both can advance and gain strength.

Virginia may not be an ideal climate to organize, but it has significantly improved as the record attests. More excuses and delay by the Unions must be directly confronted.

The challenge for the left in Virginia is to think over the situation as presented here and begin the process of identifying union organizing opportunities. And most of all, to act, and do something to expand the momentum for new union organizing in Virginia. The time is now; Organize the Unorganized in Virginia!

4 responses to “You Cant Organize a Union in Virginia?”

  1. Much of the same holds true in North and South Carolina. One of the difficulties for the left wing to organize, is there isn’t one in the union movement. Here in Atlanta there is active resistance to left organizers. There is a movement of workers and supporters attempting to organize and build support for southern union drives which offers an avenue for left supporters. The Southern Workers Assembly which is being built by UE 150 and Black Workers for Justice has intervened in support of organizing drives mainly in NC but I believe with city workers in Norfolk. They also have publicized Amazon workers drive in Ala. This is kind of an effort to get around the conservative nature of union leadership.

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    1. Thanks for your comments. An additional point I would offer is that when the few leftists there are out there get the floor or the ear of the leadership it is usually well-intended cheerleading to “Organize the South”! and so on. We need to push on the union bigs for real numbers. How many campaigns? Where exactly? How many elections? Win and loss numbers? Scrutiny of these numbers will show that there is by-and-large just no effort being put in. We have to push the leadership to get serious and deploy real resources. I just re-ran the numbers of mine from ATU, and in the 2014 to the present ATU has organized 44 new units in the south for about 2,000 workers. But even this figure – which is remarkable – will never break the surface. We miss making this point and the labor leadership is happy to repeat slogans and give lip service but there is no fact-based yardstick. By doing this we won’t magically succeed, but it will put it into a more scientific context.

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    2. FYI, the city workers’ campaigns in SE VA are being conducted by the UE in Newport News and Virginia Beach (prompted by a successful one-day walkout by VB sanitation workers at the height of the Covid crisis). AFSCME has had some contact with Norfolk city workers, but there doesn’t seem to be an active campaign there. In spite of the relatively high concentration of unionized shipyard, dock and federal workers here, there has been almost zero support for the UE campaigns among the established unions.

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  2. […] Note: This article recently appeared in The Virginia Worker. Virginia ranks 12th in population among the U.S. states and is one of the fastest growing. The […]

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