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'Anti-Union Forces Awoke a Sleeping Giant': Voters Overturn a New Anti-Union Law

In a test of public support for unions following the Supreme Court's Janus ruling, voters rejected Missouri's right-to-work law on Tuesday.

Right to Work Missouri
Missouri motorists pass a sign against Proposition A, a so-called right-to-work law.
(AP/Charlie Riedel)
After a years-long battle between labor unions and right-to-work advocates, Missouri voters on Tuesday killed a new law that prohibited labor groups and employers from requiring private-sector workers to pay union membership fees.

The state’s so-called right-to-work bill was signed last year by then-Gov. Eric Greitens, but unions forced the issue onto the August ballot. 

"Working people needed 100,000 signatures to get that issue on the ballot. We submitted over 300,000," said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka in a speech Tuesday, anticipating a positive outcome for unions. "Working people are writing a comeback story unlike any I’ve seen in my 50 years in the labor movement."

The Missouri vote represents a victory for unions in a political landscape that is increasingly hostile toward them. The state's debate received national attention after the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a blow to public-sector unions in June. In that case, Janus v. AFSCME, the justices ruled it is unconstitutional to require "nonconsenting employees" to pay fees to unions.

"Anti-union forces awoke a sleeping giant," says Philip Dine, a former labor reporter and author of State of the Unions. "I think unions have become energized and realize they have to fight back."

Right-to-work advocates argue that requiring workers -- both union members and non-members -- to pay union fees violates their First Amendment rights. They also claim that right-to-work laws make states more attractive to businesses. Critics of the right to work argue that because all employees of a unionized company benefit from union services, they should have to pay union dues. 

Missouri was among a new wave of states pushing this policy.

"Previously most of the 28 [right-to-work] states were in the South or Southwest … they were pretty conservative anyway," says Dine. "What’s concerning for labor now is that the states we’re talking about are not anti-union states."

Within the last eight years, right-to-work bills were signed by Republican governors in Michigan, Missouri and Wisconsin -- three states with historically strong unions. During that time, Republicans gained more control over state legislatures, and anti-union lawmakers used the 2008 recession to promote right-to-work laws as a way to be more business-friendly, says Dine. 

The majority of right-to-work states, however, implemented their laws shortly after the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act gave them the authority to do so. After the 1960s, right-to-work became a "mostly dead issue" until the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, says Gordon Lafer, an associate professor at the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center. The Citizens United decision permitted unlimited corporate spending on politics, leading to a boost in corporate lobbying on state legislative issues like right to work, he says.

Right-to-work states tend to have fewer union members and lower wages for workers. Throughout the country, union membership increased by 262,000 people in 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Missouri union members, however, dropped from 9.7 percent of the state’s workforce to 8.7 percent from 2016 to 2017.

Though the law is dead in Missouri, the labor battle continues.

Whatever happens with future right-to-work legislation, unions will need to adapt in the current climate, says Rafael Gely, a law professor at the University of Missouri. This may involve restructuring how they collect fees or market their services, he says, but it will take some "innovation and creativity."

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