Business and labor interests have spent the summer bashing each other over a right-to-work law in Missouri. They’ve used TV ads, tweets and protests to convince lawmakers that mandatory union dues in Missouri are a) a good idea, or b) a bad idea.
The Missouri House settled the argument Wednesday, at least for now. It left the current system of mandatory dues in place.
You may think that was a) a good decision, or b) a bad decision, but we can argue the merits another day. For now, let’s examine why the two sides spent so much time and energy on the issue.
It isn’t because voters have been clamoring for changes in the state’s labor laws. Less than 7 percent of Missouri’s private sector workforce is unionized. For non-union workers — 93 out of every 100 private employees in the state — the right-to-work argument was largely irrelevant. Those workers don’t pay dues today and won’t tomorrow.
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As a symbol, though, the vote was enormously important for the business interests that oppose labor unions, and for the unions trying to maintain their dwindling memberships. The Missouri right-to-work debate represents something bigger: Can labor protect itself from damage? Can business control votes in a once labor-friendly state? And who can raise the most campaign money next year?
Special interests were more interested in those political questions, raising the stakes. That’s one reason they poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the state this summer.
We’ve seen this before. Kansas City spent the summer arguing over an increase in the minimum wage, a pay increase enormously important for some workers but less significant to employees earning more than the minimum. Sure, boosting the bottom wage might force some earnings up, slightly, but those gains would likely be wiped out by the higher cost of a hamburger.
The minimum wage is more about politics than economics.
This is a recurring theme in contemporary government, one that worsens as you move up the democracy ladder. Congress now spends virtually all its time casting symbolic votes, more important for what they say than for what they do.
Turning government into a symbol instead of a solution frustrates millions of people, and explains the rise of Donald Trump. When the noise is more important than the signal, we shouldn’t be surprised when voters choose the noisiest candidate in the field.