A Right-to-Work Model, the Unionization of Fairfax County Government Workers

Ann Johnson

Advisor: Dae Young Kim, PhD, Department of Sociology and Anthropology

Committee Members: Rutledge Dennis, Joseph Scimecca

Research Hall, #301
April 26, 2017, 10:30 AM to 07:30 AM


Labor unions have been in steady decline for decades despite vast inequality and the persistent struggle of most workers in the labor force. Based on the growing number of collective actions throughout the country from various sectors of the work force, unions are still believed to be an important institution to combat the great power imbalance between workers and employers. However, forceful resistance to unions presents ongoing obstacles for workers, particularly in right-to-work states where anti-union public policy and culture undermines organized labor. In recent years right-to-work legislation was passed in West Virginia (2016), Wisconsin (2015), Michigan (2012), and Indiana (2012).  While workers in those union stronghold states were losing collective bargaining rights and wondering how to maintain union rolls, Fairfax County Government Employee Union (FCGEU) was forming in Fairfax, Virginia, a right-to-work state where general county workers have long been without collective bargaining rights and a culture of unionism. FCGEU joined with Services Employee International Union (SEIU) in 2009 to implement their new model, a hybrid that combines the old tenets of union workplace structures with local grass roots organizing, political mobilization, community coalitions and social movement activism.    This dissertation project is an ethnographic case study of the formation of this new model of unionization.  In this time of growing income inequality, greater wealth concentration and rollbacks on public sector bargaining rights, this study asks if this model can serve as a blueprint for unionization in right-to-work states.  An examination of FCGEU’s organizational structure, strategies and tactics revealed both strengths and limitations of the new model in achieving political and cultural changes.