The recent history of labor unions in America—those institutions which protect workers, ensure workplace fairness, and in many ways are the bulwark of the nation’s middle class—has not been a good one. Republicans have chipped away at their power for decades, and establishment Democrats, who are supposed to the party of labor unions and have benefited from their support, have done very little to protect them from these attacks. This enduring blind eye is a big reason why many of the union rank-and-file in America, particularly in the rust belt, voted for Donald Trump in 2016. When neither party has your back, populist demagoguery (not to mention all the pro-worker promises Trump never planned to deliver on) starts to look more attractive.
One of the chief weapons used by labor’s enemies are the so-called right-to-work laws, which are more aptly described by activists as right-to-work for less. These laws, which are in effect in 27 states—almost all of them red states—essentially give workers the right to opt out of unions and, more critically, the right to opt out of “fair-share fees.” These fees are less than regular union dues, and are paid by non-union members to help cover a union’s nonpolitical costs for things like collective bargaining. There’s a good reason for this: Unions are required by law to represent all employees (a stipulation which includes defending them in cases of grievance against an employer), not just the ones who actually join, so the fair-share fees are compensation for the benefits that accrue to those workers who decide not to join.
Right-to-work laws give these non-union members the right not to pay fair-share fees, and in doing so they kneecap unions by eliminating a major source of funding. It also provides a perverse incentive for workers not to join unions. And, of course, it hurts those workers deeply, as you might expect from something explicitly designed to diminish the power to fight for better wages, conditions, and benefits. As EPI noted in 2015, right-to-work states have 3.1 percent lower wages even after adjusting for economic factors, and workers in non-RTW states are 2.4 times as likely to be in a union. And ironically, that trend goes for all workers in a state, not just union workers, because when unions are strong, it raises wages everywhere due to pressure to match union standards.
So when Missouri’s Republican legislature passed right-to-work in 2017, and Missouri’s Republican governor signed it into law, things looked really bad for the state’s workers. But that’s when union organizers mobilized, and by gathering signatures across the state, they managed to push “Proposition A” to a statewide referendum. That referendum happened last night, and the state’s voters chose resoundingly to defeat the right-to-work law. From NPR:
Voters in Missouri have overwhelmingly rejected a right-to-work law passed by the state’s Republican-controlled legislature that would have banned compulsory union fees — a resounding victory for organized labor that spent millions of dollars to defeat the measure.
With about 98 percent of the precincts reporting, the “no” vote on Missouri’s Proposition A, which supported the law, was running about 67 percent, with nearly 33 percent voting “yes.”
Here’s Mike Louis, AFL-CIO president in Missouri:
Bernie liked it too:
One really interesting note is that more voters participated in the Republican primary than the Democratic primary in Missouri last night, which means that Republican voters were at least partially responsible for the result. And the regional breakdown confirmed this, showing that even many red counties either voted no on the proposition, or came to an even split.
It's yet another sign that a good way for progressive activists to bypass polarization, and the reflexive pulling of the Republican lever by voters in red states, is to isolate single issues and present them independent of party affiliation in a referendum.
For more perspective on labor's big victory in Missouri, check out the thread that starts with this tweet: