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Politics, Elections and Government

Missouri Voters' Choice On Right To Work Tests Labor's Strength And Could Weaken It

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Sophia Tulp
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KCUR 89.3 file photo
More than 250 union members gathered July 10 to kick off a campaign against Proposition A, which would ban unions from requiring that workers pay dues.

Missouri voters have two tasks Aug. 7. One is choosing their candidates for the general election. The other is deciding whether Missouri should become a right-to-work state, effectively banning unions from requiring that workers pay dues.

Right to work was supposed to have taken effect almost a year ago, as former Gov. Eric Greitens signed a bill from the Republican-majority Missouri General Assembly in February 2017. But pro-labor groups petitioned to put the law to a statewide vote.

A “yes” vote for Proposition A, as it will be called on the ballot, would enact a right-to-work law. A “no” vote would keep right to work from being adopted.

This isn’t the first time Missouri has faced a right-to-work vote; the last was in 1978, when it was defeated 60 percent to 40 percent. Back then, right to work wasn’t as much of a political dividing line compared to now, according to Judy Ancel, the former director of UMKC’s labor studies program. Now, she said, unions tend to side with Democrats.

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Credit Sophia Tulp / KCUR 89.3
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KCUR 89.3
Union workers gather at the “We Are Missouri” campaign office in Kansas City to knock on voters’ doors ahead of the Aug. 7 primary election. If voters pass Proposition A, the right-to-work legislation that Missouri lawmakers passed last year will become law.

Alise Martiny, business manager for the Greater Kansas City Building and Construction Trades Council, remembered campaigning against the initiative as a teenager.

“My dad worked on this campaign when I was a junior in high school and I was out there at the grocery stores and in the trenches and we’re not going to give it up,” she said at a July 10 rally at the Kansas City Pipefitters union.

More than 250 union workers, from carpenters and railroad employees to frost insulators and thespians, kicked off their campaign against Prop A that day.

Forty years ago, Democrats held the Missouri Senate and House, and statewide offices were evenly split between the parties. Currently, only two Democrats hold major offices — auditor and a U.S. Senate seat — and statehouse Republicans moved the ballot initiative to the August primary instead of the November general election. So, passing Proposition A would be major victory for the Republicans in power.

Union strength has seen a steady decline since 1978. The most recent data from the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics shows national union membership declined from 14.1 percent to 10.7 percent over the last decade (down from over 20 percent in 1978). Missouri’s union numbers are below the national average: 8.7 percent.

Twenty-eight states have instituted right to work, including all of Missouri’s bordering states except for Illinois.

Supporters of such laws, like Matthew Panik, the vice president of governmental affairs for the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, say right to work will draw industry to the state and boost the economy.

“When site selectors are looking at places to locate either manufacturing operations or really any type of business, they’ll have a checklist that they go through and for some industries, right to work is a major factor and if a state is not right to work, Missouri is kind of taken off the list,” Panik said.

Republican state Sen. Bob Onder, of Lake St. Louis, said right to work is a way to ensure workers rights.   

“Proposition A is a pro-worker piece of legislation,” he said. “There's no reason someone should be forced to join or pay dues to a union in order to hold a job.”

Pro-labor boosters counter that there isn’t really such a thing as forced union membership in Missouri.

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Credit Sophia Tulp / KCUR 89.3
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KCUR 89.3
Members of the Kansas City Actors Equity Union sit together at a rally on July 10. The event kicked off a campaign against Proposition A, which would ban unions from requiring that workers pay dues.

However, private sector-unions can require that dues are collected even from workers who opt out, since they benefit from what’s negotiated — such as health care. Because of this, opponents of right to work say it will weaken public-sector unions and lower wages.

Jason Starr is the president of the United Auto Workers’ union in Kansas City, which represents thousands who work at the Ford plant in Independence. He calls Proposition A an attack on the middle class.  

“Why this is a priority in the state of Missouri, it really just comes down to corporate interests,” Starr said.

It’s the “free rider” effect that most worries Jeff Suchman, who’s part of the American Federation of Government Employees in Kansas City.

“What this does, is it causes unions to burn through their resources defending people who aren’t paying their fair share,” he said.

But Suchman is part of a public-sector union, and in June, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling made it illegal for those unions to collect dues from nonmembers, essentially instituting a national right-to-work law.

He canvassed in July for the pro-union political action committee We Are Missouri because he doesn’t want to see that happen to private-sector unions.

“I can see firsthand that when you don’t have the density of membership, it erodes your bargaining power,” he said.

Both sides offer up competing data points in their arguments.

Opponents favor figures like one from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that shows the average wage for all Missouri workers in 2015 was $43,640, but in neighboring right-to-work Kansas, it was $700 lower. Supporters cite data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis that shows that jobs in right-to-work states increased by 8.6 percent in the last decade, compared with 5 percent in states that don’t have right to work.

However, economists say it’s not clear whether right to work is the key factor in that data. And Jake Rosenfeld, a labor expert at Washington University in St. Louis, said the effects of the laws are overstated.

“Fewer than 1 in 10 workers in Missouri belonging to a labor union,” he said. “Bringing that down a little bit isn’t going to do a whole heck of a lot in terms of raising wages or employment levels.”

Only 8.7 percent of Missouri workers are unionized, so that means that nearly 90 percent of the people voting on right to work won’t be affiliated with a union. For these voters, Rosenfeld suggests framing the issue more simply.

“Think about it as a vote for or against strengthening organized labor and for or against maintaining Democratic party strength as well,” he said.

Sophia Tulp is a KCUR news intern. Follow her on Twitter: @sophia_tulp