VCU Workers Form All-Inclusive Union

by | Apr 26, 2021 | POLITICS

Today’s announcement that the VCU Union is now open to faculty and staff members of all classifications has implications beyond higher education. The fight to improve the working conditions of Richmond’s largest employer could have ripple effects that impact all Virginians.

This afternoon VCU workers, including tenure line faculty, adjunct faculty, and staff, announced the formation of a VCU union. The union, a chapter of United Campus Workers (UCW), will be an expansion of a UCW-affiliated organizing effort among adjunct instructors in the School of the Arts. 

The implications of this new organizing effort extend beyond VCU, and beyond higher education in general.

Virginia has long been considered one of the most hostile states for labor, ranking dead last among the 50 states in a 2019 analysis of worker’s rights by anti-poverty group Oxfam.

In 2019, just 4 percent of Virginia wage and salary workers were part of unions, compared to a national rate over 10 percent. Only South Carolina and North Carolina ranked lower. According to a 2020 report, Virginia, South Carolina, and North Carolina are also the only three states to prohibit “collective bargaining by public sector employees including firefighters, police and teachers,” a ban that will be eased in Virginia on May 1, 2021 for local public employees, but will remain in effect for state employees, such as faculty and staff at VCU and other state universities. Notably, the new law does not bestow collective bargaining agreements to localities; it only allows localities to consider and revise the bans if they see fit.

However, the activities banned by these laws represent just a slice of union activity, and the means by which unions can accumulate leverage in labor negotiations are diverse. Via the First Amendment, it is unconstitutional for a state to prohibit unionization, even at public institutions; only the act of collective bargaining between the union and the state entity is banned.

In 2011, the Economic Policy Institute found that workers in “right to work” states like Virginia earn, on average, 15 percent less in wages. The number becomes 3.1 percent when adjusted for socioeconomic factors like cost of living, but it should be noted that cost of living is often lower in locations with lower “quality of life,” including access to quality education, healthcare, green spaces, transportation, and other factors (therefore, adjusting these numbers for cost of living has implications for equity). Moreover, workers in “right to work” states are also less likely to receive health benefits from employers, and are dramatically less likely to be protected by a union contract.

A January 2021 UCW victory in Tennessee presents an example of the power unions can wield, even in “right to work” states. Though Tennessee does not currently prohibit collective bargaining between unions and government entities, Tennessee has had “right to work” laws on the books since 1947 (Tennessee state law weakens unions by allowing workers who are protected by union negotiations to forgo paying union dues). 

Despite this considerable obstacle, in January of this year the University of Memphis chapter of UCW secured $15/hour minimum wage for all campus workers, the result of a union campaign waged since 2017, according to a UCW press release.

By contrast, at the time of this writing VCU is running multiple ads on ‘vcujobs.com’ for hourly positions that pay $10/hour or less. This is including a position in the box office that pays just $9.50/hour, is eligible for 29 hours per week, and in which the new hire would be ineligible to ever receive health benefits, according to the point of contact listed in the ad, who was reached by phone by RVA Mag. A separate VCU Jobs listing seeking a housekeeper lists $10/hour as the expected salary. 

In 2021, VCU pledged to raise their standard base pay to $1,200/credit hour taught for adjuncts, though in the current academic year, base pay is $1,100/credit, and VCU has paid faculty wages as low as $816 per credit, according to Kristen Reed, an associate professor and member of the VCU union’s steering committee. In a press release on April 12, the union noted “’VCU Arts Adjuncts Organizing for Fair Pay’ was successful three years ago in winning pay increases.” However, “the increases they won still leave most VCU adjuncts below [Virginia’s] poverty line.”

A 12-credit load is considered full-time for adjuncts at VCU, and would gross $28,800 for two semesters of work. According to an online paycheck tabulator, after deductions a single person earning this salary should expect a net paycheck of $946 twice a month. According to a Richmond Times Dispatch report, rents in Richmond rose more than 30 percent over a six-year period from 2012 to 2018. According to multiple apartment rental websites, in April 2021 the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Richmond was approximately $1,200 per month. 

Therefore, VCU adjunct instructors — many of whom have PhDs or other terminal degrees in their fields — can expect to spend over 63 percent of their take home teaching pay on renting a one-bedroom apartment in Richmond, with just $700 left over per month for all other expenses including child care, groceries, student loans, car payments, heating, electricity, hot water, retirement savings, health care, leisure, and unforeseen expenses. 

According to VCU Human Resources, only “salaried” faculty members are eligible for health benefits, a classification that does not include adjuncts. Furthermore, the school will only contribute to benefits premiums for employees who work 30 hours a week or more. With a budget stretched this tightly, a worker at this income level would be unlikely to accrue disposable income to create an emergency fund, save for a future down payment on a property, or pursue other long-term financial goals.

Photo via VCU CNS

To understand the full context of Virginia’s contemporary labor crisis, one must also revisit two familiar Virginian themes: Segregation and Dominion Energy. 

As sociologist Marc Dixon describes, the founder of the “right to work” movement was a segregationist named Vance Muse. Muse and his organization — “The Christian American Association,” founded in 1936 — were based in Texas, but wielded a powerful influence through the American South. As early as 1916, Muse is noted as opposing a Texan pro-labor law that protected railway workers from excessively long work days. 

Revealingly, in opposing unions, Muse deployed ugly, anti-Black rhetoric: “From now on, white women and white men will be forced into organizations with black African apes whom they will have to call ‘brother’ or lose their jobs.”

In 1961, Martin Luther King Jr laid bare the connection between anti-Blackness and anti-labor sentiments, telling the AFL-CIO “the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.”

That same year, King condemned “right to work” laws in more general terms. “In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work,'” he said. “It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights. Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone… Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer, and there are no civil rights.”

According to Dixon, though numerous unions were segregated — and the AFL’s record on race is particularly checkered — in the early 1940s, Muse saw the CIO’s opposition to Jim Crow laws as a particular threat (later these national, competing entities merged into the AFL-CIO). An expert in coded, racist public messaging, Muse’s group lobbied heavily for the successful passage of “anti-violence laws” that ultimately prohibited union strike picketing in states including Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, and Texas, effectively making illegal one of the primary tactics unions deploy in making grievances public, and accruing negotiation leverage.

Emboldened by these victories, in the late 1940s numerous other conservative state legislatures and governors cracked down on organizing efforts. 

In Virginia, a battle between Virginia Electric and Power Company (predecessor to Dominion) and its workers led then-Governor William Tuck to pass a right-to-work law in 1947. Tuck made national headlines for his anti-labor resistance, and notably, was an enthusiastic participant in the Virginian strategy of “massive resistance” to the Supreme Court’s Brown vs Board of Education decision, which desegregated schools. In the US Congress, where Tuck represented Virginia from 1953-1969, the congressman fought vigorously against civil rights legislation in the 1960s.

In 1946 though, to smash efforts of energy sector labor to attain fair wages and safer working conditions, then-Governor Tuck drafted 1,600 “essential production and maintenance workers” of Virginia Electric and Power Company into an “unorganized militia,” a power play that temporarily reclassified private utility employees as members of the armed forces, whose chain of command leads to the governor. William Green, then President of the AFL, described the action as “involuntary servitude.” 

After a response from the union that he found unsatisfactory, Tuck ordered 2,500 members of the Virginia State Guard to assemble in uniform. Each member was given papers to distribute to power company employees in their districts. According to a New York Times article published that week, “One paper was a ‘notice of draft and order to report,’ addressed to the worker as ‘a member of the unorganized militia of Virginia.” 

A second sheet of paper contained the following warnings: 

If and when any union of its employees calls its members out on strike, your status as an employee of such company shall thereupon cease, and you shall immediately thereafter be on active duty as a member of the State militia, and assist in the operation of said company’s plants and facilities which will be taken over by the Commonwealth of Virginia […] You are now subject to the military law of Virginia, and for disobedience to orders you are subject to such lawful punishment as a court-martial may direct.

All male workers under the age of 55 received the above notices.

In this dramatic, legally-dubious union-busting maneuver by an anti-labor segregationist governor, one can observe the intersection of militarism, class struggle, corporate welfare and racism in Virginia. Serving as an executive agent and state enforcer for the private utility that would ultimately transform into modern day Dominion, Tuck defeated the Virginia labor movement, and cemented some of the nation’s most aggressive anti-labor policies into Virginian law.

Virginia’s contemporary position in the basement of labor rankings not only correlates with its ghastly record of human bondage, genocide, Jim Crow laws, and other systemic forms of anti-Blackness: the genealogy and impetus behind our labor laws and organizing restrictions are inextricably entwined with segregation and forced labor.

This week’s announcement of a comprehensive union for VCU employees represents a dramatic step forward in the history of Virginia labor. VCU is the largest employer in the city of Richmond, and one of the top five largest institutions of higher learning in Virginia by population. 

Moreover, a new law set to go into effect on May 1, 2021 will allow localities to determine whether non-state public employees will be allowed to collectively bargain. For example, if a Virginia locality passes new ordinances permitting them to do so, teachers and police officers employed by the locality could be allowed to negotiate via a union. However, the transference of discretion to local governments in deciding the legality of union negotiation is reminiscent of the General Assembly’s passage of a Civilian Review Board bill last year, which critics say gives localities too much power to convene (or not convene) police review boards with limited tools. Similarly, in a state as business-friendly as Virginia, there is reason for skepticism about whether the new labor law will create substantive change for workers. 

Furthermore, state employees, including all employees of state universities such as VCU, are not covered under the new bill, and will still be prohibited from both picketing and collective bargaining through a union.

Nonetheless, the new collective bargaining law, viewed alongside other signs of progress — including organizing efforts at multiple Virginia universities — may provide a glimmer of hope. With a Democrat-controlled General Assembly and Governorship, the recent passage of marijuana legalization in Virginia, and a 2021 election in full swing for numerous state-level positions, the Virginia labor movement may have a unique opportunity to expand and apply pressure to politicians. 

How lawmakers and their counterparts in VCU administration respond to this moment may provide a litmus test for how far toward progressive, equitable reforms Old Dominion is willing to swing.  

Top Photo: VCU Monroe Park campus; photo by Noah Fleischman.

David Dominique

David Dominique

David Dominique is a composer and performer living in Richmond. Currently Assistant Professor of Music at William & Mary, much of Dominique’s recent music has been written for a jazz octet, including the albums Mask (2018) and Ritual (2013). Dominique has also composed numerous contemporary chamber pieces and theater works. For his return appearance at the ICA, Dominique will improvise solo, using his voice, electronics and a loop pedal to create an emotionally-infused soundscape built from whispers, chants, vocal harmony, and a selection of the texts and themes that have informed Rashid Johnson’s “Monument”.




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