You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

A Moment of Truth for the Labor Movement

A voter referendum on a "right-to-work" law in conservative Missouri will speak volumes about the fate of unions in America.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Last year, Missouri became the latest state to pass a so-called right-to-work law, which prohibits unions from collecting mandatory fees from employees of unionized workplaces. Then-Governor Eric Greitens, a Republican, celebrated by holding multiple signing ceremonies, including one in an abandoned warehouse that he called “a far too familiar sight for many towns across Missouri.” But the party didn’t last long. In fact, the law never had a chance to go into effect. It was suspended after labor organizers and other opponents collected enough signatures to force a voter referendum.

A vote in favor of Proposition A, to be decided on August 7, would make Missouri the 28th state in the country with right-to-work laws, while a vote against would make it the first state to overturn right-to-work by referendum. The outcome has national implications not only for America’s labor movement, which is reeling from years of political and legal defeats (and a concomitant decline in membership), but for the likewise hobbled Democratic Party, which often relies on unions to drive voter turnout.

Proposition A comes on the heels of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last month in Janus v. AFSCME, which essentially applied right-to-work standards to public sector unions. Post-Janus, unions in Missouri face a double blow: If Proposition A passes in August, neither private nor public sector unions can collect fees from non-members, even though unions are legally obligated to represent all eligible workers in a unionized shop. That means tighter budgets for organizing and representing workers and for donating to the campaigns of allied politicians, which is a major reason conservative organizations like the National Right to Work Foundation and the Mercer Family Foundation have bankrolled legal challenges to the collection of union fees.

Greitens is no longer the governor of Missouri, having resigned in May amid scandal. But one of his last acts before leaving office was to move up the date for the right-to-work referendum from November to August. Republicans had called for the date change, on the basis that voter turnout would be lower in August—and thus Proposition A stands a better chance at passing thanks to motivated Republican voters. But despite this and the state’s conservative politics, there’s some evidence that unions can win their campaign. An April poll indicated a dead heat, but a July 10 poll published by The Missouri Times showed a sizable lead for the No campaign, which has outraised and outspent its opponents thanks to a significant investment by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and other unions.

“Once we knew it was going to pass the legislature, we were all very committed to trying to get this on the ballot and have the people of Missouri decide whether or not they believe that this was right for them,” said Derrick Osobase, a political and legislative director at the Communications Workers of America, which has been working closely with unions like the AFL-CIO and community groups like Jobs for Justice. “We really took things back to the basics of organizing, to move not only our members but to go big, and get swathes of the population to understand just how badly right-to-work would affect union workers as well as workers who are non-union.”

To get right-to-work on the ballot, unions and allied groups collected over 300,000 signatures in 2017. That’s roughly three times the minimum signatures currently required by the state. A spokesperson for We Are Missouri, the campaign to repeal right-to-work, said that more than 4,000 volunteers canvassed the state for signatures. Volunteers have been going door-to-door since then, too, including Alexis Straughter, a certified nursing assistant, SEIU member, and mother of two. “Right-to-work is basically an evil entity to me,” she said. “It proves the corporations and certain corrupt lawmakers don’t realize that Missouri was built on working families.”

If Missouri voters do decide that they don’t want right-to-work, it would be a rejection of decades of right-wing messaging that casts unions as greedy obstacles to job and wage growth. In pushing right-to-work laws, conservative organizations like the Heritage Foundation have been clear about their ultimate goal: decimating unions. “Making union membership voluntary would save workers—and cost unions—a lot of money,” argued Heritage fellow James Sherk in 2011. “Losing 15 percent of their dues-paying members would cost private-sector New Hampshire unions $1.9 million a year. Right-to-work would similarly save private-sector workers in Indiana $18.4 million a year.”

In 2012, The Washington Post reported that while there’s some evidence right-to-work laws grow business, it’s not clear that workers benefit from it. “One careful study conducted by Hofstra’s Lonnie Stevans in 2007 found that right-to-work laws do help boost the number of businesses in a state—but the gains mostly went to owners, while average wages went down,” the Post stated. The Economic Policy Institute, which opposes right-to-work, directly attributes wage decline to right-to-work laws. “Wages are 3.1 percent lower in so-called ‘right to work’ states, for union and nonunion workers alike—after correctly accounting for differences in cost of living, demographics, and labor market characteristics,” EPI reported in 2017. (Sherk has acknowledged this, but chalks it up to a lower cost of living.)

Jake Rosenfeld, a professor of sociology at the Washington University of St. Louis, says it’s important to consider the historical context when determining right-to-work’s impact on wages. “Part of that problem is that most of the states that are right-to-work went right-to-work a long time ago, when it was legalized through the Taft-Hartley Act, which was before we had any good data to really track the effects,” he said, referring to the 1947 law that, among other things, allowed states to pass right-to-work laws. “In recent years, some of the states that have gone right to work—and I think Missouri would count among these—had already seen their union movements devastated. The right to work often is a lagging indicator of an already dramatically weakened union movement.”

The issue of wages may also go before Missouri voters this year, as a proposal to phase in a $12 minimum wage by 2023 is now in the signature verification process. If verified, it’ll appear on the general election ballot in November. Like Proposition A, a referendum on the minimum wage would be a referendum on the leadership of Missouri Republicans. In 2015, St. Louis passed a measure that would gradually raise the city’s minimum wage to $11 an hour. But the Republican-controlled legislature passed a bill in 2017 that prohibits cities from raising the minimum wage above the state’s threshold of $7.85 an hour; Greitens allowed the bill to become law without his signature. The same year, he signed a bill that would, according to The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “prevent Missouri cities from requiring union-level wages in public construction projects.”

Straughter, who spoke out in favor of St. Louis’s short-lived $11 minimum wage in 2015, says she believes the fight to raise the minimum wage and the fight against right-to-work are “tremendously linked.” “They both play a big part in making sure that families are able to provide. Right-to-work isn’t going to help families or communities at all, and [a higher] minimum wage will.”

Even if a working-class Missourian gets a minimum wage job and works at least 40 hours a week, they aren’t guaranteed economic security. A 2018 report published by Missouri Community Action Network found that 14 percent of Missouri residents live under the federal poverty level, above the national average of 12.7 percent. The state’s minimum wage for 2018 is $7.85 an hour—but the Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimates that a single parent of two children needs to make at least $26.96 an hour, full-time, to be able to support their family in Missouri. Meanwhile, the state has a food insecurity rate of 14.2 percent, as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture; the national rate is 13 percent.

For Missouri’s workers of color, the combined consequences of a weakened labor movement and the Janus decision are set to be especially grave. Black workers are more likely to be unionized than white workers, and while unionization hasn’t closed the wealth gap, it has provided a necessary measure of economic security for workers of color. “Blacks and Latinos see greater wage premiums as a result of union membership than white workers and union membership does more to increase access to key employment benefits like health coverage and retirement plans for people of color than it does for whites,” Demos reported in 2016.

Janus v. AFCSME unfolded in courtrooms. Right-to-work winds through legislatures. But Missouri’s referendum places right-to-work in the center of the public square, where it will be decided by the workers it most immediately affects. Missouri voters can’t change Janus, but the referendum is an opportunity to shore up private sector unions and to protect organized labor itself from further attack. It could also be one move in a longer-running political strategy, as stronger union membership correlates with higher turnout for Democratic candidates.

Without a strong labor movement in America, Democrats will have a tougher time winning back control of Congress and the White House—and without such control, Democrats have no hope of checking right-to-work at the federal level, or of reversing the conservative majority on the Supreme Court. Not only would that entrench Janus as a legal precedent, but it would likely herald even more anti-union rulings in the years and decades to come. Conservative groups are certainly planning on it.