RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Advocates for organized labor are calling on Virginia lawmakers to build upon the recent changes to the state’s labor laws, but a divided General Assembly and Republican-led state government are stoking concerns over protecting those gains.

Virginia has a long history of anti-labor laws on the books. The Supreme Court of Virginia ruled in 1977 that local governments do not have the authority to negotiate contracts with their employees, a decision that nullified all of the contracts between labor unions and localities at the time. The court did make way for the General Assembly to approve such contracts, but Virginia lawmakers banned the contracts in 1993.

But for the first time in decades, local governments in Virginia can now engage in collective bargaining with public employee unions. Democrats voted to lift the state’s longstanding ban on unions for public sector workers, which include teachers, law enforcement and firefighters, when the party had full control of the state government.

Senate Democrats were not able to agree on a mandate or collective bargaining on a state level, leaving vital public employees out of the process, labor union members say.

On Tuesday, members of the United Campus Workers of Virginia (UCWVA), a “wall to wall union” that organizes for all of Virginia’s public colleges and university workers, held a rally outside the Capitol and met with lawmakers to push an expansion of the law to include all public state employees.

Speakers at the rally started chants of “Union rights! Democratic rights!” and the singing of “Solidarity Forever,” a classic pro-labor and union anthem, for the nearly two dozen supporters who braved the cold outside the Bell Tower inside Capitol Square. But the personal stories from the speakers were the main focus of Tuesday’s rally.

The United Campus Workers of Virginia (UCWVA) rally outside the Capitol in Richmond on Jan. 18, 2022. (8News photo: Dean Mirshahi)

Carmen Wright, a graduate student worker at the University of Virginia, spoke about the ongoing work from nursing and medical students on the frontlines of the pandemic and how education graduate workers and graduate instructors have dedicated their time to help schools, professors, students and K-12 education.

“Throughout all of this, Virginia’s more than 40,000 graduate student workers remain undervalued, underpaid and misunderstood,” Wright told the crowd. “Most of my colleagues make less than a living wage. Many lack adequate health care through our employers.”

How universities have relied on their graduate student workers throughout the pandemic underscores how vital they are in the commonwealth, Wright said, and should make way for them to be allowed to negotiate their contracts. They added that low wages have led some of their colleagues to go without food for periods of time.

Two universities have unionized under UCWVA, Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Virginia, since 2020.

Jon Rajkovich, an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, told the crowd that while he enjoys the start of a semester and the students he teaches, he associates his employment with “being ripped off.”

He spoke of low pay and a lack of financial protection, saying that adjunct professors at VCU have semester-by-semester contracts and claiming many go on unemployment when students are on break because they don’t get paid then.

Adjunct professors at VCU have been demanding higher pay and better benefits for years, saying the base salary per credit is not enough. While the university has increased the base pay, VCU has limited adjunct professors to teaching two classes per semester. Those teaching a full load, three classes a semester, are also eligible for contracts with benefits, according to VCU.

State Sen. Ghazala Hashmi (D-Chesterfield) speaks at the United Campus Workers of Virginia (UCWVA) rally on Jan. 18, 2022. (8News photo: Dean Mirshahi)

On top of allowing public-sector collective bargaining for all Virginia employees, UCWVA also wants changes to ensure there is a regular cost of living adjustment for all state employees, particularly in higher education institutions that are located in communities with rising housing prices.

UCWVA is also calling for access to free and affordable college tuition, particularly for students living in communities where rents are rising, and ending tax loopholes for corporations to fund their goals. For this effort, UCWVA members have been talking with state lawmakers about their appetite for their ideas.

State Sen. Ghazala Hashmi (D-Chesterfield), a former graduate student worker and a Reynolds Community College professor, spoke about the long history of laborers struggling against unjust exploitation at Tuesday’s rally.

“During every session of this General Assembly, we define our values as a commonwealth. We have the chance to point out the gaps in our social and economic structures. We develop budgets that underscore our priorities and we articulate the aspirations for a better and a more just society,” Hashmi said.

“We don’t always succeed, as we all know, but it’s very important that you are here. That we are here together. Your presence and your voice lets my colleagues know that fair and equitable representation of our workers is absolutely essential.”

Hashmi also invoked Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose life was celebrated across the country Monday, saying he stood firm on union and workers’ rights.

“We honor his legacy, not by repeating his quotes, but by acting on his vision for a more just and a more equitable society,” she told the crowd.

Whether any of UCWVA’s goals can get accomplished in the split legislature is unclear, but Gov. Glenn Youngkin and other Republicans have been strong advocates for so-called right-to-work laws that keep unions from forcing workers to join unions and pay their fees as a condition of their employment. The law effectively weakens labor unions and efforts to repeal it have been killed on bipartisan votes.

According to Pew Research Center surveys, Republicans and Democrats have moved further apart in their views about labor unions over the years but most Americans believe they have a positive effect on the country.

“We are realistic about the current General Assembly and we were very disappointed with the election in November. However, we are really excited to be here today and to be continuing to speak with legislators for the rest of the week to lay the groundwork, lay the foundation for building these kinds of changes,” Cecelia Parks, a member of UCWVA-UVA’s steering committee, told 8News on Tuesday.

Margaret Cook, the Communications Workers of America national vice president for public, healthcare and education workers, speaks at the United Campus Workers of Virginia (UCWVA) rally outside the Capitol in Richmond on Jan. 18, 2022. (8News photo: Dean Mirshahi)

Parks said the original legislation allowing collective bargaining for all public employees was “gutted” in the Virginia Senate in 2020, forcing labor unions to seek permission from individual localities.

“The intention there was to weaken workers’ rights. Instead of having one big fight for all public sector workers to win the right to bargain collectively, it now has to happen in Richmond, and then it has to happen in Charlottesville and then it has to happen in Albemarle County,” Parks said.

She added that the approved bill does not have strong enforcement measures and does not specifically include graduate student workers. While UCWVA believes more can be done, Parks applauded the changes that have gone into place across the commonwealth after the measure was passed and went into effect in May 2021.

In December, the Richmond School Board voted 8-1 to make RPS teachers the first in the state to gain collective bargaining rights to negotiate their contracts. Despite these gains, state lawmakers supporting organized labor acknowledge that newly empowered Republicans pose a threat to these efforts.

“Certainly it’s an uphill battle. We’ll be playing a lot of defense to try to ensure that some of the progress we’ve made on workers’ rights is defended,” Del. Sam Rasoul (D-Roanoke) told 8News after the rally.

So far in the legislative session, Republicans have proposed measures that would ensure right-to-work stays in place. One bill from Del. Nick Freitas (R-Culpeper) would permit independent bargaining by public employees working in a locality that has adopted an ordinance permitting collective bargaining.

The measure would prevent any agreements between a labor union and employer from applying to non-members. Freitas’ office did not respond to 8News’ request for an interview Wednesday.

A bill from state Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Rockingham) for the 2022 legislative session would repeal provisions mandating that contractors and subcontractors under a public contract pay a prevailing wage rate, requiring bidders to adhere to project labor agreements on public works projects. The proposed bill would also repeal the provision that authorizes a locality to recognize any labor union as a bargaining agent.