On Tuesday, Missouri voters struck down a law that would have further gutted unions and hurt all working-class Missourians. It’s a huge deal – a reminder that often, the most important political developments happen despite elected officials, not because of them.
The law, Proposition A, would have made the state “right to work,” a misleading phrase for a measure that lets workers opt out of paying for bargaining costs even while they remain covered by collective bargaining agreements. Many labor advocates have taken to calling such legislation “right to work for less,” or simply, “anti-union-fee” laws. Whatever you call Prop A, its purpose is clear: “It kills unions by attrition.”
Disgraced former Gov. Eric Greitens signed the legislation into law in February 2017. Missouri law allows for any legislation to be put to a public referendum if petitioners gather 100,000 signatures to overturn it. The state’s labor movement sprang into action, gathering three times the required signatures. Kelly Street, local chairman of the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen, estimated he knocked on more than a thousand doors during the petition-gathering process alone, and didn’t stop until late Monday night – and he’s but one of thousands who did the same.
The decisive result is evidence of just how wrong any politician is who doesn’t think running on a pro-labor platform is a winning strategy, but its importance goes beyond partisan politics. After all, Donald Trump won Missouri handily. Rather, it’s a sign that when people are given a say – and organizers are given the time and resources to counter the right’s messaging – they say they want stronger labor protections.
Which makes sense. Union members may be the ones most directly affected by right-to-work laws, but they aren’t the only ones. “This is not a union vs. nonunion issue. … When you break the unions, all the nonunion wages go down,” Street said. He’s right.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, wages go down by 3.1% in right-to-work states. And it’s not just about wages: These laws kneecap working-class power, and in doing so, stack the odds in favor of those wealthy few who want to privatize our schools, cut taxes for the rich and further mangle our health care. Plus, declines in union membership compound racial and gender inequality. It’s no wonder that when people are asked what they want, they choose better pay and better jobs.
Right to work is becoming the law of the land in the United States – 27 states have right-to-work laws, and in the Janus v. AFSCME decision in June the Supreme Court effectively imposed right to work on public-sector employees around the country – but these moves have little to do with what the public actually wants. Support for unions is increasing, with Gallup finding 61% of adults say they approve of unions. Yet these bills are introduced by a handful of lawmakers and, as a number of investigations have found, are backed by immense amounts of money from corporate-funded anti-union outfits.
None of those developments has anything to do with genuine democracy. And as the “No” vote in Missouri shows, democracy, in the sense of working-class self-organization, is the only way to fight back against the war on unions that the right has been waging for decades. The recent – and still ongoing – wave of teachers’ strikes is proof of that. These strikes, which mobilized tens of thousands of teachers, took place in so-called red states – including in right-to-work states such as Oklahoma, Kentucky and West Virginia.
“When talking to the public about right to work, you’re not going to win on a narrow conversation about dues and fair-share payments,” Alexandra Bradbury, editor of Labor Notes, said in an interview. “But what these attacks are really about is whether the working class is going to have power.” The thread that runs through successful campaigns such as the “No” vote in Missouri is the existence of a broad coalition of union and nonunion workers “making the case for what it means to build working people’s power, and what it means to lose that power.”
This is why voters in Missouri rejected an attempt to enshrine right to work in the Missouri Constitution in 1978. The measure was struck down, with 60% voting against it. Then, as was the case this time around, the public rejected that referendum thanks to the footwork of volunteers engaged in old-fashioned, door-to-door organizing. It can be done.
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It’s a clarifying lesson, and for the rest of us, the implications are straightforward: We have to organize against those who want to erode the quality of our lives, be they CEOs or politicians. No one will do it for us. With teachers in Banning, California, beginning a strike this week, and workers across the country arguing that the only way to reverse labor’s long decline is through rank-and-file organizing, militant action and the democratization of unions, it’s not even close to time to write labor’s epitaph. It’s always been a class war, but Missouri’s defeat of Prop A is further proof that when the working class fights back, we can win.