Action in the States: Right to work heads for referendum in Missouri

If Missouri’s workers and unions have their way, the state’s majority Republican legislature and its new GOP governor won’t have the last word on the fate of “right to work” in the Show Me State. The voters will.

Even before new Gov. Eric Greitens (R) signed the RTW law, which the heavily GOP legislature pushed through early in 2017 over labor and Democratic opposition, unions and their allies were laying the groundwork to take the issue to the voters next year.

And assuming their ballot drive succeeds, that referendum will be a key index of whether the anti-worker ideology that RTW embodies has staying power among the general populace, not just in Missouri, a classic swing state, but nationwide.

The Missouri RTW law made the state the 28th to name itself right to work, which unions, workers and their allies call “right to work for less.” That’s because RTW states generally have lower wages for workers, fewer worker protections, lower benefits and less political clout for workers and their allies.

And in Congress, right wing congressional Republicans, led by Joe Wilson of rabidly anti-worker anti-union South Carolina, have renewed their push for a national RTW law.

The reasons for these drives? In a word: Money, specifically making sure unions lack it.

RTW isn’t about a worker’s right to join the union or not, or pay dues, or not. It’s about a concerted right wing-GOP-business campaign to defund unions, thus destroying resistance to the corporate-radical right agenda.

How? RTW says any worker – union member or not — whom unions represent on the job can take advantage of union services without paying one red cent for them. Such freeloading weakens unions’ ability to defend anyone at all, the real aim of RTW backers.

The Missouri campaign to put RTW on the state ballot has taken a number of forms. They include:

• A petition drive to get the required number of signatures for a formal vote.

• An informative Facebook page started by the wife of a member of Laborers Local 110.

• Exposure of the special interests pushing RTW, notably a multimillionaire builder from the highly right-wing Joplin area whose campaign contributions and ad spending helped produce the lopsided GOP majorities in the legislature, and Greitens’ win.

• Publication of analyses and studies showing how RTW not only hurts workers but — contrary to backers’ claims — does not encourage businesses to move to, or grow in, Missouri.

The very day Greitens signed RTW, Feb. 6, the state AFL-CIO and the state NAACP filed their referendum petition with the Secretary of State. The Missouri constitution says that legislation passed by the General Assembly must be referred to voters if 5 percent of voters from two-thirds of Missouri’s eight congressional districts order it, creating a citizens’ veto.

Their ballot language, for a proposed constitutional amendment killing RTW, says “That employees shall have the right to organize and to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing. No law or ordinance shall restrict or impair an agreement which requires employees to support their chosen collective bargaining representative.”

The state fed, the NAACP and their allies have until Aug. 27, the day before RTW is scheduled to take effect, to collect the 140,000 signatures they need to put it on the 2018 ballot. If they do, that also delays its imposition until after the referendum result. The last time Missouri voters cast ballots on RTW, in 1978, they bounced it by a large margin.

Fearful of such an outcome, the National Right To Work Committee — the extreme business-backed anti-worker anti-union group that fuels the RTW campaigns — is suing in state circuit court to try to stop the vote before it even gets to the ballot box.

“In its lawsuit, the NRTWC has the gall to say the language is misleading as it allegedly ‘fraudulently presents itself as an ‘employees’ rights proposition’ when it only protects those organized in labor unions, not employees who ‘choose to withhold their support,'” St. Louis Labor Tribune publisher Ed Finkelstein says.

“It impacts ALL employees, those who want to join the union and those who do not,” adds Missouri AFL-CIO President Mike Louis. “At the get-go, their argument is, like RTW itself, deceptive. If there was ever a misleading statement, it’s ‘right-to-work,’ which has absolutely nothing to do with a person’s right to a job or his or her right to work, but is designed to trick people into believing something that it’s not.”

“Gov. Greitens is putting Missouri on the same dangerous path of job loss, lower wages and more dangerous work places as Oklahoma and other states that have adopted these anti-working families laws,” Louis told the Labor Tribune. “This referendum will guarantee that employers in Missouri can decide for themselves how to run their businesses and reach agreements with their employees without government intervention.”

“In today’s economy, employers and their employees need to work together to create and keep good-paying jobs,” Louis added. “This referendum stops corrupt politicians and the corporate special interests from trying to micro-manage the private sector and interfere with contracts negotiated between employees and employers.”

Senate Bill 19, the RTW law, makes it a misdemeanor for employers to negotiate a union shop provision in contracts with their unions. “Missouri voters have no desire for government overreach to take us backward on wages and working conditions to benefit an elite few,” UFCW Local 655 President David Cook said, predicting RTW would lose statewide.

“So-called ‘right-to-work’ makes it more difficult for working people to make themselves heard,” said St. Louis University professor and Service Employees Local 1 member Jameson Ramirez. “It will lower wages, slash benefits, and put a secure retirement out of reach for thousands of hardworking Missouri families.” One exception: A narrow “grandfather clause” that protects current union contracts until they expire or are modified.

“By passing so-called ‘right-to-work,’ Greitens and other politicians in Jefferson City chose millionaire CEOs and out-of-state corporate special interests over Missouri’s working families,” said Al Bond, Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the St. Louis–Kansas City Carpenters Regional Council.  Bond called the Missouri RTW law “a vicious assault” on workers and “legally flawed,” too.

Kelsey Hulsey isn’t waiting for the referendum push. She’s already getting the word out on Facebook. Her page is called Missouri Wives And Families Against Right To Work.

She started it after breaking down in tears after last year’s election, worried that everything she and her husband Nicholas had worked for “would literally be taken away from us overnight” as a result of Greitens’ triumph and RTW, she told the Labor Tribune. Greitens had made RTW, which term-limited Gov. Jay Nixon (D) vetoed in 2016, his top priority.

“A lot of people don’t understand what ‘right-to-work’ is and how harmful it can be to working families,” Hulsey, a legal secretary, said. “I just felt like I had to be the voice for union wives because I thought, ‘If I don’t do this, who else will?’”

She explained why: When her husband was laid off from an unionized aircraft repair plant a week before their wedding four years ago, the couple had to move, to a RTW state, Indiana, for a year.

“We experienced firsthand what ‘right-to-work’ is, and it was sickening,” Hulsey said. “The hours he had to work were outrageous and he worked for less than half of what he makes now. We were constantly stressing out and wondering if we would ever be able to start a family because after all, we were newlyweds.”

Nicholas was finally able to find a job in Missouri working for the railroads as a member of Smart (Sheet Metal Workers) Local 1823. The couple moved back to the state for a fresh start. After about a year, he was laid off again. That’s when he decided to join Laborers’ Local 110. “Nicholas has never been so happy,” Hulsey said. “He loves his job, and we have thrived. He has wonderful wages and insurance benefits.”

They decided to have kids, helped by insurance, thanks to the unionization of her husband’s job, which paid for fertility treatments. Then RTW came along. Having kids is now on hold, as the Hulseys’ income could drop. “I’m a white-collar daughter who’s become a blue-collar wife,” she said. “I’m just hoping that by sharing my story, I’ll be able to educate others on what ‘right-to-work’ really means.”

The Labor Tribune, other publications and non-partisan institutes are also highlighting studies showing the negative difference that RTW makes in a state.

Federal jobs data show that Missouri added more jobs than any of its “right-to-work” neighbor states over the 12-month span of November 2015–2016. And The Kansas City Business Journal noted that while Missouri added nearly 51,000 jobs in those 12 months, neighboring “right-to-work” state Kansas lost 5,300 jobs, putting it close to the bottom in the nation in job creation, at #47.

Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that seven of the 10 states with the highest jobless rates are RTW states. And BLS adds an average worker in a RTW state makes $6,109 less yearly than a worker in a non-RTW state. In addition, data shows some 13 percent fewer workers in RTW states have health benefits than in non-RTW states. And workers in RTW states have a 49 percent higher chance of getting killed on the job.

“It’s appalling the GOP is so eager to snatch the security and opportunities of so many families away,” said House Minority Floor Leader Gail McCann Beatty, D-Kansas City. “That’s not the type of message we should be sending to our constituents.”

Steelworkers Local 713 member Leslie Hall noted that because her plant is union, it helps to build up the wages in the entire area. “There are several manufacturing plants in neighboring towns that are not union, but competing with us,” she explained before trying to convince Greitens to veto the bill. “They keep their wages high, and they keep their safety issues where OSHA expects them to be. I just want Governor Greitens to realize that if wages fall at my plant, they will fall in the entire area, and people won’t have money.”

The workers and their allies are also exposing the big-money interests pushing RTW. Union-hater David Humphreys, president and CEO of Joplin-based Tamko Building Products Inc., and his family spent $14 million during the campaign cycle supporting candidates who supported right-to-work and targeting those who had previously voted against it.

The infamous Koch brothers, David and Charles, the right-wing billionaire owners of Kansas City-based Koch Industries, also funded Missouri legislators’ campaigns through the Americans For Prosperity and the secretive right wing American Legislative Exchange Council.

“It’s upsetting that you have an in-state multi-millionaire and out-of-state corporate interests that bought our election process,” said State Sen. Jacob Hummel, D-St. Louis, an  IBEW Local 1 member and Secretary-Treasurer of the state AFL-CIO. “All this is going to do is drive down wages and weaken bargaining strength, and that’s the purpose of the legislation.”

Even the St. Louis Regional Chamber of Commerce isn’t jumping up and down over having RTW in Missouri. Officially, it hasn’t taken a position on the issue yet.

But in a forum on the issue, where Finkelstein also spoke, SLRC Director of Business Research and Analysis Tim Alexander said right-to-work was 18th in the rank of important issues that companies considered when determining where to locate a new plant. Top of the list was availability of skilled labor.

Citing extensive research, the chamber’s Alexander also confirmed that RTW would result in: Decreased economic mobility, less workplace safety, decreased political support for workers, and no effect on manufacturing, business formation or economic growth. He did say RTW would have a positive effect on business incomes.

The contention that RTW doesn’t impact union membership was disputed both by Alexander, who pointed out that a “1987 study estimated union membership drops by five to 10 percent in the first five years after RTW,” and Finkelstein.

“That’s the real reason for this law, to castrate the union‘s ability to fight for and protect workers by decimating the union’s finances which impacts its ability to hire staff and fight for worker issues,” Finkelstein said. “The only ones benefiting will be the huge corporations who, when they can pay workers less, will fatten their bottom lines and their bonuses and stock options.”

Apparently, the campaign against RTW is already having an effect. Though the referendum would not occur until next year, two opinion polls show a majority of Missourians are against RTW.

Remington Research Group, founded by GOP strategist Jeff Roe, released a poll showing support of “right-to-work” at a mere 39 percent. And KMOV in St. Louis conducted a Facebook Live Survey, taken by about 15,000 people – with over 12,000 people opposing “right-to-work.” The poll continued through the weekend of Feb. 10-12, with 52,355 people participating as of that final day – and 28,438 opposed right-to-work.

That didn’t surprise Missouri lawmakers who battled, unsuccessfully, against the GOP-business-right wing RTW juggernaut in the state capital of Jefferson City. The state House passed RTW 100-59.  The state Senate previously passed it 21-12.

State Rep. Doug Beck, D-Affton, a member of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 562, made a last-ditch effort to include an amendment that would have taken the measure to a public vote, but he lost to the Republican supermajority.

“It is hard to not take it personally when you get up each day and go to work so you can provide a better life for your family and then you come here to do what’s right for your constituents and their families and you see one billionaire” — Humphreys — “funding the effort to take your livelihood away,” he said in an impassioned speech on the House floor. “One billionaire funding the effort to reduce paychecks, healthcare, pensions and workers’ rights of every working class family in Missouri.

“I know this is just the start and more legislation will follow to further hurt Missouri families. These are protections that have been fought for, for over 100 years and they will be swept away with one vote, simply because one billionaire wants it to happen.

“All this talk about how ‘right-to-work’ states are better for workers is complete nonsense. We are being told ‘right-to-work’ will improve our state economically, yet this legislation has a zero fiscal note. But every conservative estimate I’ve seen shows ‘right-to-work’ will cost our state at least $160 million in lost revenue due to lower wages.

“Lower wages equal lower income taxes collected. Lower wages equals less money spent stimulating the economy. With lower wages, families will not be able to buy new homes and cars, take vacations, spend money on local restaurants and entertainment. With lower wages, people will be forced to have to make hard choices between food and medicine.

“And, after years of lower wages, many of these families will have turn to state assistance as their only option to survive, as we have seen in other ‘right-to-work’ states. And, there is no state savings in that.

“Middle-class spending is the type of spending that creates economic stimulus, a larger tax base and more jobs. The middle class are the true job creators, not a billionaire,” State Rep. Doug Beck, D-Afton, a member of Plumbers Local 562, declared.

“It is abundantly clear that Republicans are fearful,” Beck said in a release after RTW passed. “They are fearful of the evident fact that the people don’t want this legislation. They don’t want their employment benefits, workplace safety or good wages taken away. They asked for protection and consideration, and Republicans let them down.”

Written by: The staff of The St. Louis Labor Tribune and Press Associates

This story is a consolidation of five stories from the entire staff of the St. Louis Labor Tribune, with additional material from Press Associates Union News Service.