In the annals of American labor relations, history sometimes reverses course. That certainly was true yesterday in Missouri. By a 2-to-1 margin, voters overturned a law passed and signed early last year to protect private-sector workers under union contract from being forced to pay dues in order to keep their jobs. The referendum, known as Proposition A, had been placed on the ballot via petition. Union leaders now are serving notice that the Missouri vote is the beginning of nationwide campaign to repeal similar “Right to Work” laws in 27 other states. “The defeat of this poisonous anti-worker legislation is a victory for all workers across the country,” crowed AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. His declaration seems a case of myopia.
Union Corruption Update described this tug of war in the Show Me state early in February 2017. The Right to Work movement at the time was on the upswing. In chronological order, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, West Virginia and Kentucky had enacted laws over the previous five years guarding the right of non-joining private-sector workers under union contract to refuse to pay partial dues, also known as “agency fees”; passage in Michigan, arguably the birthplace of modern industrial labor activism during the 1930s, was a particularly tough pill for the unions to swallow. Union leaders realized that their organizing, bargaining and lobbying abilities were at risk. Many non-member workers, freed of the fear of losing their jobs for not paying their “fair share,” likely would withhold their agency fees, undercutting union collective bargaining clout. Indeed, according to a study released last year by the Illinois Policy Institute, union membership in each of Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin declined following passage.
Missouri at the time was primed to become the latest addition to the Right to Work column. Republicans, more predisposed than Democrats toward to promote individual worker liberty, held a majority in both houses of the legislature. In early December 2016, Rep. Holly Rehder (R-Sikeston) introduced a Right to Work bill. And a new Republican governor, Eric Greitens, indicated he would sign such legislation. Union leaders and their allies counterattacked. “The ‘Right to Work’ is one several proposals and tactics to try and eliminate the unions,” remarked Greater Kansas City AFL-CIO President Pat Dujakovich. “To undermine (the middle class) by passing this legislation,” said Missouri Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh (D-Bellefontaine Neighbors), “is appalling and unbecoming of this hallowed body.” This opposition would be to no avail. In January 2017, the House of Representatives and then the Senate passed similar though not identical measures. Early the following month, the Senate passed a compromise measure which Gov. Greitens signed into law.
But that was not the end of the story. Under Missouri law, new legislation can be nullified via referendum generated by the signatures of at least 100,000 state residents. Organized labor wasted no time in leading a campaign for repeal. Last summer, union volunteers knocked on 771,000 doors, dialed 662,000 phone numbers and, most importantly, collected 310,000 signatures for a petition to rescind the law. They also succeeded in blocking the legislation from going into effect as long as the issue was on the ballot. The vote initially was scheduled for election day, November 6, 2018, but pro-Right to Work legislators moved the date up three months to August 7. Unions claimed this was a tactic to discourage voter turnout, but they were unsuccessful in moving the vote back to November. Notwithstanding, having spent more than $15 million, labor officials were confident of victory. “We’ll come out in large numbers and vote for people who support the working people’s agenda,” the AFL-CIO’s Richard Trumka told CBS News.
Trumka must have been onto something. By 6 A.M. this morning, with virtually all precincts reporting, the vote to repeal Missouri’s Right to Work law was way ahead by 67 to 33 percent. It was a convincing union victory, winning in rural as well as urban areas. The outcome also was somewhat unexpected. Republican Donald Trump, after all, carried Missouri in the 2016 presidential election by about 20 percentage points. And this June, the U.S. Supreme Court, by 5-4, ruled in Janus v. AFSCME Council 31 that state and local government workers covered by union contract are not required to pay dues, a decision that overturned more than 40 years of forced dues collections. Organized labor is exultant over yesterday’s reversal of fortune. “It’s a truly historic moment,” said Mike Louis, president of the Missouri chapter of the AFL-CIO. “Tonight we celebrate, but tomorrow we’re getting back to work. We’re going to take this energy and momentum and build more power for working people across Missouri.” With their principal nemesis Eric Greitens having stepped down as governor late this spring over a personal matter, they’ll have some unexpected leeway.
Organized labor has won out for now. But will workers as a whole, in Missouri and elsewhere, win out? That’s a different story. Unions are cartels. Their goal is to restrict entry into the labor market by raising the price of labor to employers. Labor officials regularly proclaim solidarity with “working families,” but that’s boilerplate rhetoric. In reality, they are focused on their institutional viability. Their concern for the welfare of nonmembers extends only to the possibility of bringing them into the fold. Nationwide, only 10.7 percent of all workers, and 6.5 percent of private-sector workers, belonged to a union in 2017; in Missouri, the overall figure was 8.7 percent. And it’s not likely, given the long-term downward trend of union membership, that the unionized portion of the labor force is going to make a comeback. Unions, undeterred, want to raise those percentages.
Even if the repeal of Right to Work laws in Missouri and other states does manage to raise the unionized share of the work force by a significant amount, that doesn’t mean that the economy would benefit. “Right now, Missouri is missing out on opportunities for new jobs and new investments from companies that will only locate in the Right to Work states,” said Ray McCarty, president of the Jefferson City-based Associated Industries of Missouri, a business trade group. At the heart of the matter is worker liberty. Allowing people to benefit from a union contract doesn’t translate into forcing them to do so. Jeremy Cady, director for the Missouri chapter of Americans for Prosperity, explained the situation on the eve of the vote. “Workers should have the freedom to support their union,” Cady said. “Many unions provide great value to their workers. But some do not, and workers should have the ability to hold those unions accountable.” Unfortunately, union leaders don’t want dissenting workers to have that option. In Missouri, for now, they’ve gotten their wish.