Voters Just Killed Right to Work in Missouri, Proving Labor Still Has Power Under Janus

Jeff Schuhrke

Voters in Missouri said loud and clear that they don't want right to work. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

After a string of vic­to­ries across the coun­try in recent years — includ­ing this summer’s Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court rul­ing — the anti-union right-to-work” move­ment has met its match in Missouri. 

In Tuesday’s pri­ma­ry elec­tion, Mis­souri vot­ers over­whelm­ing­ly reject­ed Propo­si­tion A, a bal­lot mea­sure that would have made the state the 28th in the nation to adopt a right-to-work” (RTW) law. Designed to bank­rupt orga­nized labor, the decep­tive­ly named leg­is­la­tion would have pro­hib­it­ed pri­vate sec­tor unions from col­lect­ing fair share fees from work­ers they are legal­ly required to represent. 

With the defeat of Prop A in Mis­souri, the U.S. labor move­ment has passed its first major test since the Janus deci­sion in June, in which the Supreme Court’s con­ser­v­a­tive major­i­ty essen­tial­ly imposed right-to-work” on the nation’s entire pub­lic sector.

The tim­ing of this is essen­tial. I think every­one wants to write the labor movement’s obit­u­ary,” AFL-CIO Sec­re­tary-Trea­sur­er Liz Shuler recent­ly said. It’s going to ener­gize and acti­vate us and show that we fight back.”

It’s going to be the shot heard round the world,” AFL-CIO Pres­i­dent Richard Trum­ka said last month, antic­i­pat­ing Prop A would lose. It’ll make waves in Wis­con­sin and Penn­syl­va­nia and Ohio and Wash­ing­ton D.C. And it will pro­vide a pow­er­ful rebuke of the Supreme Court’s dis­grace­ful rul­ing in Janus.”

Since 2012, more states have passed RTW leg­is­la­tion than at any time since the 1950s. Even tra­di­tion­al union strong­holds like Michi­gan and Wis­con­sin have gone right-to-work.” Mean­while, House Repub­li­cans have intro­duced a nation­al RTW bill, which Pres­i­dent Trump has promised to sign.

In states with right-to-work” laws, medi­an house­hold incomes are $8,174 less than in non-RTW states, peo­ple under 65 are 46 per­cent more like­ly to be unin­sured, infant mor­tal­i­ty rates are 12 per­cent high­er and work­place deaths occur 49 per­cent more often.

Missouri’s RTW leg­is­la­tion was ini­tial­ly signed into law last Feb­ru­ary by the state’s dis­graced, now-for­mer gov­er­nor, Eric Gre­it­ens. A Repub­li­can backed by the Koch broth­ers and var­i­ous dark mon­ey” groups, Gre­it­ens served only 16 months as gov­er­nor before resign­ing ear­li­er this year amid a series of scan­dals and crim­i­nal alle­ga­tions.

Gre­it­ens’ RTW law was sup­posed to take effect last August, but a coali­tion of labor groups led by the Mis­souri AFL-CIO gath­ered 310,567 hand-writ­ten peti­tion sig­na­tures to block its imple­men­ta­tion and force a statewide ref­er­en­dum on the leg­is­la­tion — Prop A.

Prop A was orig­i­nal­ly sched­uled for this November’s gen­er­al elec­tion, but this spring, the state’s Repub­li­can law­mak­ers moved it to the pri­ma­ry, wor­ried that a high union turnout in Novem­ber would be a boon to Democ­rats in hot­ly con­test­ed races. Described by Mis­souri AFL-CIO Pres­i­dent Mike Louis as a devi­ous ploy,” the change marked the first time a ref­er­en­dum in the state has been moved to a pri­ma­ry election.

To defeat Prop A, union mem­bers and allies waged an aggres­sive get-out-the-vote cam­paign across the state, reach­ing some 500,000 vot­ers through door-to-door can­vass­ing and phone bank­ing. They got help from actor and Mis­souri native John Good­man, who nar­rat­ed a radio ad declar­ing that RTW will not give you the right to work. Instead, it gives big busi­ness and out-of-state cor­po­ra­tions the right to pay you less than they do now.”

All told, orga­nized labor raised $15 mil­lion for the cam­paign to stop RTW in Mis­souri, out­spend­ing pro-RTW groups near­ly 5 to 1.

This is not the first time Mis­souri vot­ers have reject­ed RTW. In 1978, a sim­i­lar state bal­lot ini­tia­tive was defeat­ed by a 60 to 40 mar­gin, despite ear­ly polling sug­gest­ing an easy vic­to­ry for right-to-work” forces. That vic­to­ry, how­ev­er, was fol­lowed by a pre­cip­i­tous decline in the pow­er of orga­nized labor nation­wide from the 1980s to today. Whether or not Tuesday’s defeat of Prop A sig­nals a larg­er shift in labor’s for­tunes remains to be seen.

If noth­ing else, Mis­souri vot­ers’ rejec­tion of RTW shows that the eulo­gies for orga­nized labor post-Janus are pre­ma­ture. As Trum­ka says, We’ve tak­en their best shot, and we’re still standing.”

Jeff Schuhrke has been a Work­ing In These Times con­trib­u­tor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in His­to­ry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go and a Master’s in Labor Stud­ies from UMass Amherst. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @JeffSchuhrke

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