On Tuesday, Missouri voters trounced a right-to-work law pushed by CEOs, corporations and radical right-wingers intent on killing collective bargaining. The law was passed by the state’s Republican-controlled legislature last year before advocates successfully petitioned for a direct referendum on the measure.
The problem with trying to peddle right-to-work in the Show-Me State is that it has nothing to do with rights or jobs. Right-to-work is about power. Right-to-work states take power from workers and hand it to corporations, CEOs and wealthy shareholders. Right-to-work makes the rich richer. It makes workers poorer. No wonder Missouri voters crushed it by a 2-to-1 margin. No wonder Ohioans knocked it back.
Right-to-work policies win when decided by Republican politicians and right-wing judges. They lose when decided by voters ― even in red states that went for President Donald Trump.
Corporations, CEOs and their radical right-wing handmaidens have been stealing workers’ power since the late 1940s. When a Democratic-controlled Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, workers gained a legally recognized right to band together in labor unions and collectively bargain for better pay, benefits and working conditions.
Collective bargaining is effective. Union workers make more money, are more likely to be covered by company-sponsored health insurance and are less likely to be injured on the job. So, unions bloomed. More than a third of workers belonged by the early 1960s. Non-union workers benefited, too, because their employers had to keep wages and benefits competitive to attract and retain staff.
But in 1947, Republicans reversed course. A GOP-controlled Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act. It took power away from unions. Among other things, it created an opening for states to adopt legislation that came to be known as right-to-work.
This legislation prohibits companies and unions from bargaining labor agreements under which all workers who benefit must either pay dues as members or pay a smaller amount called a fair-share fee as non-members. The fee covers the cost of services the labor union is required by federal law to provide to everyone in an organized workplace. Allowing some workers to “free ride” ― receiving the services and benefits of a collective bargaining agreement while not contributing dues ― can financially debilitate and bankrupt unions. Corporations and radical right-wing politicians love this because it puts all of the power back in the hands of the wealthy. Wages decline. Benefits disappear. And more workers are killed on the job.
Over the past 45 years, right-to-work and other corporate-sponsored campaigns against unions cut membership to just 10.7 percent of workers nationally. Wages have stagnated as corporations commandeered bargaining power.
Over the past six years, five more state legislatures approved right-to-work, bringing the total to 27. This is more states appeasing the rich than at any time since just after Republicans passed Taft-Hartley over Democratic President Harry Truman’s veto.
It comes at a terrible cost to workers. The annual median household income in right-to-work states is $8,174 less; workers are 46 percent more likely to be uninsured, and they die on the job 49 percent more often.
That’s what Republicans wanted for public sector workers in Ohio in 2011. They passed what became known as Senate Bill 5, and GOP Gov. John Kasich quickly put his name on it.
Workers weren’t going to stand for it, though. They gathered signatures to get a referendum to repeal the measure. Fewer than 300,000 were needed. Workers collected more than 1.3 million. Ultimately, 61 percent of Ohioans voted to repeal Republicans’ restriction of public sector workers’ bargaining rights.
Republicans in the Missouri legislature did the same thing last year, passing highly unpopular right-to-work legislation. It was signed by now-disgraced Gov. Eric Greitens, who resigned after 17 scandal-ridden months in office to avoid impeachment.
After workers forced the referendum, Greitens, though out of office June 1, worked to secure the law through his dark money group, A New Missouri Inc., which is the subject of a state Ethics Commission complaint and gave $2.3 million to the cause. The corporations and business groups that backed right-to-work raised $5.6 million, but complained when workers contributed more money, went door-to-door and phone banked to defeat the measure.
In the end, the vote against right-to-work was even bigger in Missouri than it was in Ohio, with 67.5 percent of Missourians rejecting it. Only 14 of the state’s 114 counties approved. Missourians, who backed Trump for president by 18 points, favored collective bargaining, even though only 8.7 percent of them are union members ― lower than the national average.
The margin of support was even higher this week than when Missourians voted on essentially the same referendum in 1978. Then, it was 60 percent for labor unions.
Corporations, CEOs and right-wingers aren’t giving up, though. The Republican-dominated U.S. Supreme Court handed them a huge win in June, when it toppled a 40-year-old precedent and ruled in Janus v. AFSCME that every state is right-to-work for public sector unions.
The effect of that is to reverse what the people of Ohio decided in their referendum on public sector unions in 2011. And there is no doubt that the right-wingers and corporate interests that pushed the Janus case will soon return to court to try to seize the same bargaining power from private sector unions in every state.
If they are successful in doing so, it will be because they’ve rigged the system to overrule the interests of American workers. As Missourians showed again this week, when it’s put to a vote, workers win.
Leo W. Gerard is the international president of the United Steel, Paper and Forestry, Rubber, Manufacturing, Energy, Allied Industrial and Service Workers International Union.