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Michigan may embolden W.Va. union foes

Lawrence Messina, Associated Press

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) -- Michigan's recent move to ban unions from collecting mandatory dues from workers may raise the profile of that and similar issues at the West Virginia Legislature's next session.

Champions of the policy known as right-to-work include at least some House Republicans. GOP delegates plan an aggressive agenda after nearly erasing the Democrats' majority in last month's election. Republican lawmakers have also targeted the prevailing wage law, which sets minimum pay levels for certain public works projects.

"I believe there is a great deal of support for both of those issues within the caucus, but we haven't discussed whether that would be the part of the agenda," House Minority Leader Tim Armstead said Friday. "There's been a great deal of concern about the effect prevailing wage has had on projects ... There are individual members who feel very strongly about (right-to-work) and believe it is a positive component for economic growth."

Armstead, of Kanawha County, said that Republican delegates will begin meeting next month and only then "will finalize the issues that we want to see accomplished during the session." He added Sunday that several members of his caucus strongly support right-to-work, but he has yet to measure the extent of support among the 46 GOP members.

Democrats still hold 54 of the House's 100 seats. House Majority Whip Mike Caputo doesn't believe either issue will get much traction beyond the GOP delegates.

"I don't see our caucus interested in that at all," said Caputo, a veteran United Mine Workers union official from Marion County. "If the minority caucus wants to make political hay out of this, so be it."

Caputo's party also remains a majority in the state Senate, and its members include Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. Senate President Jeff Kessler expects the budget, education and inmate crowding will command much of the Legislature's attention during the session that begins Feb. 13.

"I think it's something that caught people off-guard, and wasn't really vetted or reviewed," the Marshall County Democrat said of Michigan's quick passage of right-to-work. "I've been opposed to it in the past, and I'm still opposed to it."

This year's West Virginia right-to-work bill never emerged from the first of two House committees to which it was assigned. A measure addressing prevailing wage cleared the House Judiciary Committee but then idled amid objections from organized labor.

Unions represent just over 15 percent of West Virginia workers, according to 2011 figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's above the national average and a higher portion than all but 15 other states. It's also roughly unchanged from a decade ago. But labor has also suffered several political defeats during that time. Of the estimated $344,000 spent by unions on election ads ahead of the Nov. 6 vote, for instance, 42 percent targeted races in which their candidates lost. Another 30 percent provided mixed results, paying for ads promoting multiple candidates that included some who lost.

West Virginia AFL-CIO President Kenny Perdue said lawmakers have long discussed both right-to-work and prevailing wage. Perdue does not expect the latter to become a major issue next session. As for right-to-work, Perdue said the furor that has surrounded its passage in Michigan may give West Virginia legislators pause.

"I do expect it to be brought up with a little more force," Perdue said. "But I believe people will see there are other issues to focus on. I think people will decide there are more important things to do than to cause a fight that would reflect negatively on the legislative process."

Michigan is the 24th state that has made it illegal to require nonunion employees to pay unions for negotiating contracts, representing them in grievances and other services. Supporters argue right-to-work attracts employers, creating jobs, while also providing workers with a choice regarding union membership. Critics warn the real goal is to starve unions of funds, hobbling their effectiveness. While each side cites studies in support of their positions, other experts say the impact of right-to-work is unclear.

Surprise helped mark the law's fast-paced passage in Michigan earlier this month. Gov. Rick Snyder had repeatedly insisted during his first two years in office that right-to-work was not on his agenda. But the Republican reversed course following the election, signing the right-to-work measures hours after they cleared the GOP-controlled Legislature there. Republicans likely chose to press ahead with right-to-work during their postelection lame-duck session as their majority in the Michigan House will narrow next year after losing five seats in November.

Michigan ranks 5th for the portion of its workforce represented by unions, at 18.3 percent, according to 2011 BLS figures. The Michigan Chamber of Commerce endorsed right-to-work's passage there.

West Virginia chamber President Steve Roberts said right-to-work appears a more prominent issue in states heavy in manufacturing. The chamber is more focused on workforce training and workplace safety issues, including measures targeting drug abuse.

"The West Virginia chamber does not look for it to be an issue this session," Roberts said of right-to-work.


Lawrence Messina covers the statehouse for The Associated Press. Follow him at https://twitter.com/lmessina