St. Louis Local 1 members and allies gather following a meeting in August near the end of the petition drive for a referendum on Missouri’s recently-passed right-to-work law.  

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.

Eleventh District Vice President Curtis E. Henke speaks to St. Louis Local 1 members during a meeting about the referendum on Missouri’s right-to-work law. Behind him, from left, are Local 1 Business Manager Frank Jacobs; John Stiffler, executive director of the St. Louis Building Trades Council; Missouri AFL-CIO President Mike Louis; St. Louis Labor Council President Pat White; and Missouri State Sen. Jake Hummel, a Local 1 member and secretary-treasurer of the Missouri AFL-CIO.

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 appear to have collected enough signatures to force a statewide referendum on the issue in November 2018.

Organizers said they will submit about 311,000 signatures on petitions to the Missouri Secretary of State’s office on Aug. 18. Approximately 100,000 are 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 is scheduled to take effect on Aug. 28, but Jay Aschroft, the state’s Republican secretary of state, says it can’t be enforced if enough valid signatures to force a referendum are submitted.

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 have made a resurgence in the Midwest in recent years as Republicans have controlled more state legislatures. Missouri was the 28th state to adopt such a law and the sixth since 2012.

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

“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.”

St. Joseph’s 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.”

St. Louis Local 1 member and former Missouri state representative Sylvester Taylor gives instructions on how to sign a petition asking for a referendum on the state’s right-to-work law.

Wagers said Local 545 kept its offices opened late for two weeks in May, inviting the public to stop by and sign the petition. That made it easier for people who might be busy with their children’s activities on the weekend.

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 held 14 classes about what properly constitutes collecting legal signatures 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. 

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.

Those forces will intensify their efforts. Corporate-backed nonprofits that do not have to disclose their donors have poured in 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 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.”

Right-to-work figures to be an ongoing battle with Republicans in charge of the federal government and the majority of state governments. Federal legislation was introduced in Congress earlier this year calling for a national right-to-work law. The West Virginia Supreme Court will hear a challenge to that state’s right-to-work law in September after a lower court judge issued an injunction against it.