Missouri’s push to implement a “right-to-work” law lost in a landslide Tuesday, halting a trend of Republican-dominated states adopting such measures and marking a resounding victory for labor organizers.
The fight in Missouri displayed the power of union spending at a time when unions face shrinking budgets and new attacks following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling this term.
The vote, which rejected a measure passed by state lawmakers last year, was closely watched around the country, and national groups on both sides spent millions of dollars on the campaign. Unions spent roughly $16 million compared to $3 million by right-to-work supporters. The victory for unions stopped Missouri from joining 27 other states that ban the mandatory collection of so-called fair-share fees in private-sector workplaces.
“I would think that if a state is contemplating right-to-work, it would have to take a close look at what happened in Missouri,” said Robert Stewart, St. Louis-based shareholder at Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart. “If you are going to get outspent 5-1, you better not pick that fight. The unions did an expensive and extensive campaign. Any state contemplating such a measure, better look at the money.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling this term in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said public sector employees cannot be compelled to pay fair-share fees to unions. The decision was a blow to unions that represent workers such as police officers, teachers and firefighters. Employment attorneys have predicted the ruling could mean less lobbying money is available for some of the country’s largest labor unions to spend on state and local campaigns.
Stewart said the Janus decision “has not yet affected any union treasuries. The unions were able to pour a lot of money into Missouri. That will just be harder and harder to do on a go-forward basis. Missouri is kind of a drop in the overall bucket of public sector employers and state employees.”
The Missouri measure would have extended the Janus ruling to the private sector. The Missouri legislature passed the measure, which was originally set to go into effect this month, but unions successfully pushed for a public referendum.
Campaign finance reports show that national groups—such as branches of the AFL-CIO, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Teamsters—spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in the state to fight the implementation of the law. The National Right to Work Committee also gave heavily to support the measure.
Corey Franklin, a Jackson Lewis principal in St. Louis, said the strategy of the right-to-work proponents fell short. He said the union advocates, expecting the measure to pass the legislature, came out in force. “A lot of the strategy appeared to be to take for granted that it was a conservative state,” Franklin said. “That wasn’t enough to carry it across the goal line when you have well organized and well financed opponents.”
Union participation is declining. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 10.7 percent of U.S. workers were union members in 2017, down from 20.1 percent in 1983. Nearly a third of U.S. government employees are members of a public-sector union.
A string of Republican states adopted right-to-work laws since 2012, including Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Virginia and Kentucky. Other right-to-work states passed such laws in the 1940s and 1950s.
Ronald Gladney, an attorney at Hartnett Gladney Hetterman in Missouri and Washington, was among the advocates against the right-to-work law. In 1978, when organized labor was 36 percent of the workforce in Missouri, a right-to-work measure failed by 60 percent, he said. Organized labor only makes up 10 percent of the Missouri workforce and the measure lost by nearly the same margin.
“The win could certainly portend things to come. It shows when organized labor exercises its influence within a state and gets people energized on middle-class jobs and middle-class salaries, we can win,” said Gladney, who donated to the pro-union side. “The far-right of the Republican party thought they could take it on and win it. They found out they could not.”
The left-leaning Economic Policy Institute estimates that workers in states with such laws make 3.1 percent less than those that do not have the law. Pro-union groups say that the vote would mean a swing back to workers away from corporate interests, moving forward.
“This is the first major fight over [right-to-work] since the Supreme Court ruling in Janus v. AFSCME in June which, overturning 40 years of precedent, barred state and local government unions from requiring workers who benefit from union representation to pay their fair share of that representation,” the institute said in a statement. “By rejecting Proposition A, Missourians have struck a much needed blow for working people.”
Competitive Enterprise Institute labor policy analyst Trey Kovacs said workers will remain stuck in a labor union they may not want and that may not be providing good value.
“Unfortunately, Big Labor’s big spending paid off,” Kovacs said. “Unions from around the country poured millions of dollars into Missouri to sway voters against enacting Right to Work. As a result, labor unions in Missouri can still force workers to pay the union in order to keep their jobs, which is a terrible injustice to the hard-working men and women in the Show-Me state. All workers deserve the right to determine how best to spend their earnings.”