The most remarkable thing about last week’s rejection by Missouri voters of a right-to-work law enacted by the Republican-run state legislature was its magnitude. Not only did opponents crush the law by a margin of more than two to one, the total vote on the issue—nearly 1.4 million—exceeded by more than a 100,000 the number of statewide ballots cast on behalf of all candidates in both party primaries that same day.
Labor won because its leadership reached deep into the rank and file to mobilize an army of activists who first collected more than 300,000 signatures to put a repeal referendum on the ballot and then door-knocked throughout the state on its behalf. In many instances this movement was led—and not merely funded—by the more conservative wing of the Missouri AFL-CIO—the building trades, Machinists, and Teamsters who rightly saw “right to work” as an existential threat.
Even more important, the fight to repeal the new law quickly transcended the technicalities of the right-to-work law itself, which would have made illegal collective bargaining contracts that require union membership and dues payment as a condition of employment. Rather, the ballot fight became for many a referendum on class power in the United States: are you for or against unions, with the boss or wary, in favor of Social Security or not, with the rich or against? Such dichotomies sidestepped, perhaps even subverted, the set of racial, religious, and culture-war polarities that have for too long turned the phrase “white working class” into a synonym for Trumpite reaction.
Union members actually accounted for a rather small part of the victory. The 226,000 unionists in Missouri represent a bit less than 9 percent of the total workforce, which is less than the national average but nearly twice the level of Southern states like Mississippi or nearby Arkansas. Yet 937,000 ballots were cast against right to work. Anecdotal reporting suggests that many were Trump voters, a reasonable proposition in a state where the president took 57 percent of the vote.
Right to work became a flashpoint in Missouri for the same reasons it has convulsed other heartland states during the last decade. The hollowing out of the midwest industrial core has sapped the vitality of the union movement in all the former bastions of organized labor: Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Peoria, South Bend, Wheeling, Toledo, the Quad Cities, St. Louis, Kansas City and the coal country of West Virginia and Kentucky. For decades, right-to-work advocates were marginal to the politics of these states. But once Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker showed he could overwhelm labor-liberal resistance during the “Wisconsin Uprising” of 2011, the anti-labor floodgates opened wide: GOP legislatures and Republican governors enacted right to work in Indiana, Michigan, Kentucky, and West Virginia.
From the Progressive era through the 1990s, Missouri was a state that encapsulated the tensions and balance of U.S. politics. It had a mix of industry and agriculture, big-city machines and rural populists, Ozark evangelicals and St. Louis Lutherans. For a hundred years the state almost always voted for the winning presidential candidate. But state politics has taken a hard right turn in the current century.
In 2016, voters elected a conservative governor (Eric Greitens, who has since resigned under scandal), and the GOP legislature saw its chance to pass an anti-labor bill. Except for Illinois, Missouri was now surrounded by right-to-work states, so Republicans argued that unless they followed suit, employers would avoid the state. The anti-union law easily passed the legislature, was signed by Greitens in February 2017, and went effect six months later. The same combo nullified a $10-an-hour minimum wage ordinance that St. Louis had recently enacted.
But Missouri, like most states, provides for a referendum on legislative acts when and if opponents can collect enough signatures. State unionists quickly mobilized; over the course of several months in 2017 and 2018, they solicited 310,000 signatures, three times more than needed, to put right to work on the ballot.
They were smart to do so. History demonstrates that unions and their allies have often used referenda to defeat anti-labor laws. During the 1940s, most states in the South and many in the mountain West prohibited the union shop, either by legislative enactment or statewide referenda. But, in 1958, they were soundly rejected when the National Right to Work Committee put them to a vote in California, Colorado, Washington, and Ohio. In all of these states, the right-wing committee made a strong pitch to African-Americans. Although the right-to-work group had been founded by reactionary and racist Southern industrialists, a new generation of conservatives thought they could take advantage of the disrepute into which many unions had fallen in the aftermath of Senate hearings into the corruption of the Teamsters under Jimmy Hoffa.
But black voters, as well as Latinos, overwhelmingly rejected the right-to-work initiatives. They understood that while unions were far from models of anti-racism, they were still institutions that advanced the economic interests and power of minority workers.
Of course, it was not just black and brown workers who valued what solidarity could bring them. White workers and their middle-class and liberal allies also recognized that unions were bedrock institutions of the social order created by the New Deal. They were not only collective-bargaining mechanisms but schools of democracy. Especially on the local level, they educated and mobilized a generation of politically engaged individuals and sustained the culture and institutions that empowered them.
Missouri itself demonstrated this in 1978 when labor and a mobilized African-American community together defeated an earlier right-to-work referendum at the dawn of the Reagan era. Led by Jerry Tucker, a radical leader of the United Auto Workers, state voters rejected that law by a 60-40 margin. In more recent times, right-to-work referenda, sometimes labeled “paycheck protection,” also lost three times in California and in 2011 in Ohio when Republican Governor John Kasich suffered a defeat when a newly enacted right-to-work law covering public employees—including police and fire fighters—was repealed in resounding fashion during a statewide referendum.
This year, the Missouri legislature thought they could win an anti-union majority by scheduling the referendum during a low-turnout state primary, held on a sweltering day in August. But labor demonstrated that unions can still command majority support. The vote echoes the springtime insurgencies that made public school teachers a renewed force in the deep red states of West Virginia and Oklahoma, and in purple Arizona. If such mobilizations by unions can join up with the anti-Trump resistance, it will speed the renewal of progressive America.
But what happened in Missouri raises problems as well as opens up opportunities. Labor raised nearly $15 million for the campaign; in California, the unions routinely spend twice as much to stave off similar efforts to subvert them. This is money that could otherwise be used to organize workers, run contract campaigns, and elect more “friends of labor.” And the win in Missouri merely keeps the status quo in place; it’s hardly a recipe for long-term success, given the slow erosion of union strength in virtually every old industrial state.
Meanwhile, the National Right to Work Committee, the Koch Brothers, and other right-wing moguls still have a powerful tool to “trump” such labor victories at the ballot box. They go to court. A legal strategy conservative groups began deploying after right-to-work was soundly defeated in 1958 culminated this June when the Supreme Court ruled, in Janus v. AFSCME, that public-sector unions could not require even partial dues payments as a condition of employment. It is just a matter of time before right-wingers—on the bench and off—seek to apply the same logic to all unions in all workplaces, enacting by judicial fiat a national right-to-work law. Labor’s victory in Missouri cannot reverse Janus’s effect on public-sector unions, but it may well throw a monkey wrench into the right-wing campaign to transform America into a union-free dystopia.
This threat brings a final problem and a critical opportunity. Leading opponents of Missouri’s right-to-work law highlighted the argument that because such statutes weaken unions by enabling “free riders” to renege on their dues, collective bargaining is less effective and wages are lower than in states that retain the union shop. Many studies have backed up their view.
But this is also a thoroughly instrumental argument. It does little to bolster unionism as the kind of idea and movement that once empowered and emboldened working-class Americans of all races. If unions merely raise wages in exchange for union dues, their opponents can make the argument that workers should be able to spend their money in other ways. Walmart has long been pounding this theme in anti-union training videos shown to the millions of employees who pass through its corporate portal.
Instead, labor’s partisans should make clear that the strength of the union movement is about a lot more than the paycheck. It is about solidarity, politics, and ideology. In Janus the right argued that collective bargaining could not be divorced from politics; all union dues, no matter how they were spent, had a political and therefore a “free speech” impact. They are correct.
Today, unions in both the private sector and the public are engaged in a thoroughly political struggle: whether in collective bargaining, electoral campaigns, grievance handling, or any other activity. This is politics in the broadest sense: not merely a partisan endeavor but an ideological project that furthers collective action and a class understanding of the forces arrayed against and on behalf of working people. The institutions that populate Trumpian America—the evangelical churches, Fox News, the Republican Party—understand this truth quite well. It is time that both labor and larger left did too.
Nelson Lichtenstein teaches history at the University of California, Santa Barbara where he directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy.