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October 2017

The Case against Right-to-Work
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One of the first actions by the GOP-dominated Missouri legislature and the newly-elected Republican governor this year was to pass and sign into law a right-to-work bill in February.

That didn't settle the issue, however. Working families had a way to fight back.

With the IBEW and its allies leading the way, right-to-work opponents have collected enough signatures to force a statewide referendum on the issue in November 2018.

Organizers said they submitted nearly 311,000 signatures on petitions to the Missouri Secretary of State's office on Aug. 18. Approximately 100,000 were needed. Right-to-work advocates are expected to contest them, but with so many signatures, those leading the referendum effort are confident they have enough of a cushion to successfully fight back against those efforts.

The right-to-work law had been scheduled to take effect on Aug. 28, but Jay Aschroft, the state's Republican secretary of state, said it couldn't be enforced after the signatures were submitted. Its fate now rests on the upcoming referendum.

"I feel relieved that we've made it past the first hurdle," Missouri political director and former Kansas City Local 124 president Rudy Chavez said. "I think it gets tougher as this goes on. This was just securing signatures from registered voters. Now, you have to persuade them. You have to make your case."

Right-to-work laws allow employees to opt out of paying union membership dues, even when they enjoy the benefits of a union contract. They undercut wages and benefits throughout a state, including union and nonunion workers alike. Workers earn an average of about $6,000 less per year in states with a right-to-work law than in states without one.

Right-to-work laws have long been popular in the South and parts of the West, but they made a resurgence in the Midwest in recent years as Republicans took control of more state legislatures. Missouri was the 28th state to adopt such a law and the fifth since 2012.

Like much of the Midwest, Missouri's economy was hurt by a decline in manufacturing, but earlier this year, ranked it as having the 24th best economy among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. That was higher than any of the eight states bordering it, seven of which have right-to-work laws.

St. Joseph, Mo., Local 545 Business Manager Nathaniel Wagers said getting so many signatures is a morale boost for working families and the Missouri labor movement, especially with the tough fight ahead.

"It doesn't really matter what side of the issue people are on," said Wagers, whose jurisdiction is a largely rural area in northwest Missouri. "They believe this should be decided at the ballot box, not by politicians. You win a lot of people over and they wanted to sign just because of that."

Wagers said Local 545 kept its offices open late for two weeks in May, inviting the public to stop by and sign the petition.

The unity of the building trades working together helped, he said. Wagers and others encouraged Local 545 members to have their spouses and children nearby when asking for signatures, making the point that fighting back against right-to-work is good for families.

"We were really lucky," he said. "We had a lot of people that weren't even union members come by our office and sign the petition because they were convinced they were doing the right thing."

St. Louis Local 1 hosted classes to show what properly constitutes a legal signature under state law, Business Manager Frank Jacobs said. About 350 active and retired members attended.

Local 1 collected signatures at six county fairs in the state and held 37 signature-collecting events, including knocking on doors and gathering signatures in more than 200 store parking lots. Overall, it collected more than 20,000 signatures in 72 of Missouri's 115 counties, Jacobs said.

"The IBEW across the state of Missouri was the most organized force for the AFL-CIO," he said.

On the other side of the state, Local 124 had members go door-to-door and attend county fairs and other large gatherings, Chavez said. The local union set up remote locations away from its offices to make it more convenient for people to drive by and sign the petition.

"We stepped up," Chavez said.

Now, the battle intensifies.

Right-to-work advocates have a financial advantage and tried to thwart the referendum process before it was completed, but a state appeals court reversed a lower court decision that ruled the wording of the ballot initiative was unfair and insufficient.

Corporate-backed nonprofits that do not have to disclose their donors have poured money into groups fighting to uphold the law, including one organized by advisors to Gov. Eric Greitens.

A provision of the Missouri constitution allows for a referendum on any legislation passed by the legislature and signed by the governor if supporters can get at least 5 percent of the voters in the last gubernatorial election and in at least two-thirds of the state's eight congressional districts to sign a petition approved by the secretary of state's office.

The last successful effort came in 1982, when voters rejected legislation that would have allowed larger trucks on the state's major highways, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Voters have used the referendum process 26 times since 1914. All but two were successful.

"We've got to have three messages," Chavez said. "There's a good-guy message, where we talk about the good the labor movement does. A facts message, where we share the economic impact on the citizens and the tax base. I think you also have a message where you call out the out-of-state donors and the people spending a lot of money on this. There needs to be an accountability."

… and across America, Right-to-Work Marches on

The success in forcing a referendum on Missouri's right-to-work law was a win for working families, but plenty of threats remain — especially on the federal level.

Most notable is the Supreme Court case Janus v. the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which will be heard after the court reconvenes in October. At issue is whether public employees can be compelled to pay "fair share" fees to a union to cover the costs of collective bargaining and representation.

The plaintiff's lawyers are the same that were behind last year's Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association case, which asked the same question. The vote deadlocked 4-4 along ideological lines after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, preserving a key source of union funding and giving workers a victory.

But earlier this year, newly-elected President Donald Trump nominated federal appeals court judge Neil Gorsuch to fill Scalia's vacancy. Gorsuch, who later was confirmed by the Senate, has long expressed his admiration for Scalia, a hardline conservative who seldom showed respect for the role of unions, leaving labor and its allies to wonder if the Friedrichs win was merely a reprieve.

A decision in favor of the plaintiffs would overturn more than 40 years of judicial precedent.

The Abood v. Detroit School Board case in 1977 protected the use of "fair share" fees, which are payments collected from non-members in a union shop to help pay for services related to collective bargaining and workplace representation. By law, unions are required to represent workers at a union shop, even when they refuse to join. Until recently, it was accepted that it was only fair for those workers to pay for those services.

Workers cannot be required to pay for the political activities of a union. They may opt out of that portion of their dues.

Although the Janus case involves public-sector workers, the IBEW and other unions are concerned a decision in favor of the plaintiffs will encourage far-right politicians and conservative judges to continue their attacks on unions, including judicial or legislative action that would punish private-sector unions and do away with their fair-share fees.

In Congress, GOP Reps. Steve King of Iowa and Joe Wilson of South Carolina introduced legislation in February to implement a national right-to-work law. It has made little progress since, but with the Republicans controlling Congress and Trump publicly stating he supports such a law, the threat likely isn't going away anytime soon.

On the state level, the West Virginia Supreme Court was scheduled to hear a case in September challenging the constitutionality of that state's right-to-work law.

In 2014, Republicans captured control of both the West Virginia House and Senate for the first time since 1930 and one of their first actions was to pass the law, overriding a veto by then-Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. Six IBEW local unions with jurisdiction in the state joined with other labor allies and filed suit, claiming it was unconstitutional. A Kanawha County circuit judge issued a preliminary injunction in their favor, leaving the final decision to the state Supreme Court.

North Carolina has had a right-to-work law since 1947 and there has been no serious attempt to repeal it since the early 1950s, but corporate-backed groups from outside the state, such as Americans for Prosperity and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are pushing the GOP-controlled legislature to approve a referendum that would ask voters to make right-to-work part of the state constitution. The full legislature is expected to consider it next year.

Missouri and Kentucky passed right-to-work laws earlier this year, although Missouri's will not be enforced unless voters reject the referendum scheduled for November of next year.

There have been some positive trends for right-to-work foes. Not only did Missouri collect enough signatures for a referendum, but the New Hampshire House, which is controlled by the GOP, voted down a proposed right-to-work law in February after the state Senate passed one earlier in the legislative session. It also voted to ban consideration of another right-to-work law until after the 2018 election.


Members of Missouri unions and their allies march in front of the state capitol in Jefferson City on Aug. 18 after submitting nearly 311,000 signatures calling for a referendum on the state's right-to-work law.



Members of St. Louis Local 1 and other building trade unions in the area sign petitions asking for a repeal of Missouri's right-to-work law during a signature-gathering event at Local 1 headquarters.