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Battle over Prop A and right to work heads into home stretch

Area mailboxes are packed with Proposition A fliers, pro and con
Jo Mannies | St. Louis Public Radio
Area mailboxes are packed with Proposition A fliers, pro and con

The vote Tuesday to determine whether Missouri becomes the 28th right-to-work state will reverberate nationally and could have a huge effect on state lawmakers next year.

“We got to beat ‘em bad,” Greater St. Louis Labor Council President Pat White said as their campaign to defeat Proposition A heads into the home stretch. “We got to beat ‘em bad enough, so that next year we can go to these Republicans — and it ain’t all Republicans — and we can say, ‘This is how many people voted against this in your district.’”

Halting a possible GOP push to pass a new right-to-work law next year is one of labor’s aims in defeating Proposition A.

National union and business leaders also understand the significance of Tuesday’s vote. At stake is whether Missouri becomes the first state in seven years to overturn a right-to-work law.

In 2011, Ohio voters rejected a right-to-work law that legislators had put in place. But since then, lawmakers have put right to work in effect in states long deemed union-friendly: Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin.

That trend is among the reasons why Missouri Gov. Mike Parson is among the Proposition A supporters who also hope to send a message with Tuesday’s vote.

“I think it’s good for the state of Missouri. Other states have done it. I hope to get that done,” Parson said in an interview after a GOP rally last weekend in south St. Louis County.

“I hope it comes across, but that’s going to be up to the voters of the state to decide. But I do think a lot of other states have moved forward on right to work and it has been positive for those states.”

National AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka told reporters in Washington this week that Missouri lawmakers “listened to the whispers of a few right-wing corporate billionaires” when they approved the right-to-work law last year that’s at the center of the Proposition A vote.

What is right to work?

Under right to work, unions and employers are barred from requiring all workers in a bargaining unit to pay dues or fees, even if they don’t join the union.  

Union canvassers meet in Bridgeton on July 28, 2018 before heading out to campaign against Proposition A.
Credit Jo Mannies/St. Louis Public Radio
Union canvassers meet in Bridgeton before heading out to campaign against Proposition A.

Right-to-work opponents say it unfairly weakens unions by allowing freeloaders who still benefit from labor negotiations and ultimately leads to lower wages and benefits for all workers.

Backers say right to work gives workers more freedom and makes unions more accountable, while also making a state more attractive to businesses who don’t want unions.

Both sides are attempting to broaden the debate beyond unions. Trumka pointed to national-income figures that show average workers in right-to-work states earn about $8,700 a year less than those in states without the law.

Right-to-work backers have countered by saying that more jobs are going to right-to-work states.

State Rep. Holly Rehder, a Sikeston Republican, said on Twitter this week: “Time to focus on prosperity and jobs for ALL working families in Missouri and stop tipping the scale just for those who choose to be union.”

The Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics offers conflicting conclusionson how right to work affects states. 

Politics at play

Unions got Proposition A on the ballot by collecting about three times the needed signatures from registered voters to force a referendum on the right-to-work law that the General Assembly passed in early 2017.

Legislators later put the referendum on the August ballot because they feared a strong union turnout in November could help Democrats such as Sen. Claire McCaskill, who is seeing re-election.

McCaskill is emphasizing her opposition to right to work.

“Now is not the time to drive wages lower,” she told supporters at a rally last week. “Now is the time that we want to embrace the middle class in this country. And make sure we hold on to the ability of workers to come together and bargain.”

She says all workers do better when labor prospers.

The Proposition A contest also has created some strange alliances. Former St. Louis police association president Gary Wiegert is featured in a TV ad that praises right to work, a fact that has caused an uproar in city police ranks.

Wiegert says his support for Proposition A reflects his longstanding opposition to the idea of requiring non-union members to pay dues, a practice known as “fair share.”

“I think 'fair share' is so wrong, that you would take non-members money and turn around and give it to a private organization.”

Missouri’s labor climate has changed

For now, many on both sides agree that unions may have an edge in this year’s Proposition A fight. And it could be intentional.

For months, unions and their allies have poured millions of dollars into the state to run ads and circulate fliers that blast Proposition A.  Just this week, various unions donated $1.1 million for the final campaign pitch.

But pro-right to work groups such as Americans for Prosperity are just now launching campaigns to help Proposition A.

Some activists in both camps privately suspect that there may be a GOP strategy to let unions have their victory in August.

Right-to-work supporters in the Republican-dominated Missouri General Assembly then could turn around and pass a new right-to-work law next year.

Labor Council president White says he hopes any such plan will be scrapped if enough voters reject Proposition A.

Missouri labor leaders would like a replay of 1978: That’s when just over 60 percent of Missouri voters rejected the idea. But times have changed. The union membership in Missouri is about half of what it was 40 years ago.

Follow Jo Mannies on Twitter: @jmannies

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