- Associated Press - Thursday, June 9, 2016

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - While Republican West Virginia legislative leaders rammed a right-to-work bill into law early this year, unions spent $1.4 million trying to kill the policy and pro-business groups shelled out $374,500 to back the change.

The groups wrestled over the proposal on TV and radio, in direct mail and internet ads, in phone calls and elsewhere, according to state grassroots campaign reports.

In the end, the election-year outcome was predictable: lawmakers approved the bill largely on party lines and Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin then vetoed it. Needing only a simple majority, the GOP then overrode Tomblin’s veto to make right-to-work the law.

Under the new law, collective bargaining agreements drawn up or updated July 1 or later can’t require workers to pay union dues as a condition of employment. Unions are already required to represent every worker covered under a collective bargaining agreement. Employees can currently be forced to pay fees, but can’t be forced to join the union under federal law.

West Virginia law requires disclosure reports from groups who spend at least a few hundred dollars on campaigns that address the public and seek to influence legislation. Three groups filed disclosures for campaigns in favor of right-to-work; six disclosed campaigns opposing it. Their costs included TV and radio ads, staffing, polling, paid phone calls, among others.

Some groups also used their campaigns to address the repeal of the state’s prevailing wage for public construction projects, another policy push that Republicans passed with a veto override. Unions heavily opposed that repeal as well.

Right-to-work proponents contend the policy can lure new businesses and give workers freedom over their relationship with unions. Opponents say it’s all about diluting union bargaining influence by letting people enjoy benefits without paying dues, while offering no definite improvements to the economy.

In the right-to-work debate, a union group named Support WV Local Businesses Ltd. spent the most cash. Largely funded by the state’s Affiliated Construction Trades, the group spent $760,100, including $628,800 on TV ads against right-to-work and similar messages against the repeal of the state’s prevailing wage.

Affiliated Construction Trades also spent another $119,800 independently on TV ads, disclosures show.

Steve White, Affiliated Construction Trades president, said the amount spent seems like a lot, but it’s hard to get a message to stick in today’s cluttered world. He also said the lawmakers were dealing unions a “legislative death penalty.”

The International Union of Operating Engineers, the state and national AFL-CIO, and the AFL-CIO’s Working America community affiliate also spent money opposing right-to-work, disclosures show.

“We had to take it seriously, knowing the deck was stacked against us,” White said.

The West Virginia Chamber of Commerce spent almost $151,000, the most in favor of the change. Americans for Prosperity of West Virginia spent $115,200 in favor of right-to-work and West Virginia Business & Industry Council chipped in $108,300 to advocate for that policy and the repeal of the prevailing wage.

“Given that there were some messages coming from the other side that seemed confusing, there really needed to be somebody countering those messages,” said Chamber President Steve Roberts. “Sometimes, you don’t have to counter a message dollar-for-dollar to make your point.”

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