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Right to work affects unions most, but all Missouri voters will have a say in 2018

Union members gathered at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Hall on Aug. 8, 2017, to notarize and turn in petitions to force a statewide vote over Missouri’s right-to-work law.
File photo I Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Union members gathered at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Hall earlier this month to notarize and turn in petitions to force a statewide vote over Missouri’s right-to-work law.";

Missouri labor unions were successful in getting enough signatures to all but guarantee the state’s new right-to-work law won’t go into effect a week from now as Gov. Eric Greitens had planned.

But the real battle is just getting started. Come November 2018, voters around the state will determine whether to kill or keep the law, which bars unions and employers from requiring all workers in a bargaining unit to pay dues. Ten percent of Missouri workers are in a union.

Both right-to-work supporters and critics will be targeting non-union voters like Creve Coeur accountant Heather Inman over the next 14 months. And she’s the first to admit that she hasn’t a clue how the right-to-work law would affect her.

"I hear a little bit about right to work,’’ Inman said. “As a mother and an employee in a nonunion office, I have really no idea what the significance is going to be on me or my family.”

She has quite a few questions: “What impact does it have on me as a consumer? Is it going to raise the prices of what I’m buying here? Is it going to limit the availability of certain services?”

The answers aren’t clear. But what is, Washington University sociology professor Jake Rosenfeld said, is that the debate across the country over right-to-work laws has become more significant than the law itself.

“Right to work in Missouri and elsewhere has taken on a highly charged, highly public profile of incredibly symbolic importance for both union opponents and supporters,” said Rosenfeld, an expert on unions.

That’s been the case for at least the last five years in Midwestern states — Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Kentucky — where labor and manufacturing once loomed large. Those states all have right to work now.

Missouri labor leaders are hoping to mimic Ohio, where voters overturned a right to work law in 2011.

And out-of-state money is pouring in. Through Monday, at least $900,000 had been donated this month to political action committees that support right to work, and labor groups saw hefty sums to help pay for the petition drive.

Job booster or wage depressor?

Right-to-work supporters and opponents are committed to their cause. Take state AFL-CIO President Mike Louis, who told union members at a recent rally in St. Louis that the stakes are just as high for non-union workers.

“When our wages go down and our pensions go down and our health and welfare goes down and we start getting screwed daily on the job, what do you think happens to people that don’t have a union contract,” Louis said. “It’s worse for them.”

Home health care attendant Alice Allen (second from right) is a union member who opposes right to work.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Home health care attendant Alice Allen (second from right) is a union member who opposes right to work.

Home care attendant Alice Allen was at the rally, where the final batch of the 310,000 signatures to force the statewide vote were turned in. She’s is a member of the Service Employees International Union, and sees the the issue as one of survival.

“They want to cut out our unions, they want to pay us low wages, no benefits,” Allen said, adding that because she is in a union, she works under better conditions than many of her non-union counterparts at nursing homes.

Right-to-work backers say the law allows more flexibility for workers and supervisors. To paint the benefits in positive terms, a foundation with ties to the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity is airing upbeat ads as part of a statewide campaign.

Something exciting is happening in Missouri,” a cheery announcer says in a digital ad.“Our state is on the right track.

AFP state director Jeremy Cady says it’s spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to highlight right to work’s benefits.

“The key one being that no worker should be forced to join a union or to pay dues to a union they do not support,” he said.

Another argument for right to work is Missouri will be able to compete with the neighboring states that have right-to-work.

Ray McCarty, president of Associated Industries of Missouri and a supporter of right to work.
Credit Courtesy of Associated Industries of Missouri
Ray McCarty, president of Associated Industries of Missouri and a supporter of right to work.

“Our entire focus in the right-to-work fight was really about being able to advertise Missouri as a right-to-work state,” according to Ray McCarty, president of Associated Industries of Missouri, which represents many manufacturers in Missouri.

He also downplayed its effect on unions.

We found that in other states that have adopted right to work, it hasn’t really been the death knell that the unions thought it would be. But more it is about unions having to provide something of value to their members and proving their worth to their members,” he said.

Both sides are exaggerating the law’s effects, said Wash U’s Rosenfeld, who blames job losses more on outsourcing and automation. He also said various studies offer conflicting conclusions about the tie between right-to-work laws and wages and union benefits.

“In Missouri and elsewhere, unions were kind of anchored in core manufacturing industries,” Rosenfeld said. “And as those industries left town, left the state, went overseas or were automated, that hurt organized labor badly.”

Last right-to-work fight was 1978

About 7.5 percent of Missouri workers in private-sector jobs are union. In the public sector, the  figure is higher — close to 20 percent of government workers, educators and public safety workers.

That’s a sharp contrast from 1978, the last time Missouri voters weighed in on right to work and overwhelmingly rejected it. More than 15 percent of workers were in unions then, almost all in private industry.

Roy Gunter, a retired union electrician from southeast Missouri, sees the drop in union representation as a major hurdle. In 1978, Gunter was president of the regional labor council charged with energizing the public ahead of the vote.

At the time, southeast Missouri was home to at least 50 shoe factories and almost as many that produced clothing. Most were union. Now, virtually all of those factories and jobs are gone.

He said most non-union workers don’t know about the issue’s pros and cons.

“The people that I talk to aren’t anti-union, but they figure ‘it doesn’t really involve me, because I work at a Dollar Store or Walmart,’ ” he said.

Labor ally Tommie Pierson of Bellefontaine Neighbors said unions will have to work harder this time to make their case to the public.

“You can’t just depend on radio, print media,” said Pierson, a former state legislator and the pastor of Greater St. Mark Family Church in north St. Louis County. “You’ve got to get out there and talk to them. Knock on those doors, sit down and tell them what it’s all about.”

But even if unions win next year, it won’t be a permanent fix. Missouri lawmakers likely will pass another version.

If that happens, unions will have to persuade voters to put a ban against the right-to-work law in the state constitution, something the law’s supporters say they’re prepared to take on as well. Labor leaders have until May to collect and turn in signatures for that option ahead of the 2018 ballot.

Follow Jo on Twitter: @jmannies

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This report was prepared with help from our Public Insight Network. Click here to learn about how you can be a part of our conversations.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.