Is it possible for a state to be both friendly to business and good for workers? Can there be a balance between what’s good for labor and good for management?
In Virginia, it appears the answer is yes. Not only did the commonwealth land atop CNBC’s “Best State for Business” ranking this summer, but Oxfam International moved Virginia to 23rd in its recently released “Best and Worst States to Work in America” report.
Those measures are hardly a definitive assessment of how business gets done in Virginia. Still, they should be viewed as a positive reflection of a legal and regulatory environment that enables Virginians to thrive in the board room and on the factory floor.
One could almost hear the cheers in executive suites across the commonwealth — and by state officials — when CNBC ranked Virginia the “Best State for Business” in July. It marks the fifth time Virginia earned the cable news channel’s coveted distinction, most of any state.
CNBC’s decision process awards points for 10 categories that include the cost of doing business, infrastructure and education. Virginia ranked third in the nation for “workforce,” which looks at the pool of skilled workers, educational attainment (read: college degrees) and productivity, among other things.
So lofty a perch may come as a surprise to commonwealth workers. Virginia has been repeatedly criticized by Oxfam in its annual “Worst States to Work in America” ranking, which ranked the state last in the nation in 2018 and 2019.
This year, however, Oxfam cited policies that protect working women, including domestic workers and pregnant workers, an increased minimum wage and strengthened workplace safety measures adopted during the pandemic as reasons for moving the state to No. 23 on its list.
“This previously lagging state has proactively demonstrated a new and serious investment in the well-being and dignity of all workers,” the report says.
Treating workers with dignity represents a laudable goal, and Virginia should be proud to see its efforts recognized. It will be interesting to see how some major events on the horizon — Amazon bringing thousands of high-paying jobs to Northern Virginia, for instance — will affect that.
But what better time to take firm measure of these things than during Labor Day weekend?
The holiday is the product of an activist labor movement at the turn of the 20th century and signed into law by President Grover Cleveland in the aftermath of a deadly strike in Chicago. It was unions that pushed for hard-won safety laws, shorter workdays and workweeks, an end to child labor and other provisions that are now considered part of the landscape in America’s workplaces — regulations here so long that many take them for granted.
This Labor Day comes at a strange and challenging time. The nation is still battling a pandemic claiming more than a thousand lives each week while trying to ramp up economic activity by curbing support programs and assistance that served as lifelines for millions.
That has heightened tension between labor, which expects safe workplaces and fair compensation, and management, which wants people back at their jobs and revenue growth. The pandemic has walloped some sectors (hospitality, travel and transportation, health services) and roiled the market for workers.
Virginia has navigated these treacherous waters better than most, but it will need to keep a firm hand on the tiller as we sail into the unknown challenges ahead. The commonwealth must maintain an attractive business environment to remain competitive with other states while recognizing the workforce is more fluid and mobile than ever.
That adds to the importance of a November election which includes all 100 seats in the House of Delegates as well as the statewide race for governor. Virginia has shown that it can be a great place for business while working to ensure the dignity of workers.
Now it must prove that it can sustain that balance over the long term.