Around the Two Light apartment construction site downtown, three laborers breaking for lunch offer few kind words about something that sounds good: the right to work.
“It hurts the working class,” said Justin Gibbens, plumbers’ union.
“I don’t see how lowering our pay scale helps anybody,” said Robert Smith, carpenters’ union.
And if the right to work means lower overall wages, said Akhi Rab of the glazers’ union, “individuals willing to do that work may not be sufficiently skilled.”
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Missourians could soon find out.
A show of hands if you knew: For nearly 60 years the Kansas City area has been geographically split in how labor unions operate and what they can expect from their workforces.
Kansas since 1958 has been a “right to work” state, a term that easily confuses. Some say it boils down to the right of some workers to starve labor organizations of union dues.
In Missouri? Most everyone has the right to work, of course, though Missouri has never been a “right to work” state.
That’s likely to change. Pro-business lawmakers and lobbies in Jefferson City are moving fast on right-to-work legislation that Gov. Eric Greitens has promised to sign. A measure that won initial approval Wednesday in the Senate is expected to breeze through the House in coming weeks.
If Missouri switches, laborers at union job sites may opt out of paying membership dues yet still enjoy the wages, benefits and protections for which the unions bargain. “Free riders” — that’s what right-to-work opponents call employees who refuse to join union ranks in places such as Kansas.
Labor groups see the movement as a flagrant bid to bust unions while doing nothing for job growth or worker rights.
But business organizations and economic development groups hoping to attract new jobs are swinging more U.S. states toward right-to-work status each year. All states bordering Missouri, save for Illinois, have adopted the designation.
In fact, Missouri’s switch would make it the 28th right-to-work state. And business groups are saying it’s about time.
Here are some questions and answers about this hot-button issue.
Q: How did all this get started?
On Labor Day 1941, William Ruggles of the Dallas Morning News wrote that “every American had a right to work,” with or without union membership. That’s according to the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
Ruggles argued for “an amendment to the federal Constitution that would be so clear and unequivocal that no jurist could argue against its meaning.” Texas passed its right-to-work law in 1947. Most of the South followed suit by banning agreements between employers and trade unions that required workers to join and pay union fees.
It was a different time. Organized labor was enjoying growing influence. Workers around the country often were fired if they didn’t comply with union demands.
For businesses, a flurry of right-to-work statutes in the mid-20th century signaled relief from soaring labor costs. Some economists and historians credit the laws for the economic boom of the Sun Belt, from Florida to Texas to Arizona.
Recent years have seen a resurgence in states passing right-to-work laws — notably in the Rust Belt, where unions once flourished: Michigan and Indiana in 2012, Wisconsin in 2015, West Virginia in 2016.
With Kentucky’s right-to-work status taking effect this year, “Missouri is the only state in the (NCAA) Southeastern Conference without right to work,” said Patrick Ishmael of the Show Me Institute, a think tank promoting free market principles. “That puts us at a competitive disadvantage when trying to attract businesses.”
And workers benefit, too, said National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation vice president Patrick Semmens. He said labor contracts in non-right-to-work states almost always require workers to pay fees whether or not they join the union, “and every worker should decide for themselves whether paying that is in their interests.”
Q: So would Missouri be better off as a right-to-work state?
Absolutely not, say union groups and their supporters.
“We call it the right to work for less,” said Dave Wilson, spokesman for the St. Louis-Kansas City Carpenters’ Regional Council. He said wages that his union can negotiate in Kansas City are twice what they can bargain for in Wichita, Kansas’ largest city.
“A number of things come into play when you look at wages from area to area. But let’s not kid ourselves: Right to work in Kansas is one of the factors” affecting pay for carpenters there, Wilson said.
The annual mean wage for all occupations in Missouri was $43,640 in 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It was $710 lower in Kansas, but economists of all stripes argue against drawing broad conclusions from such basic wage comparisons.
Michigan, Wisconsin and other states that recently adopted right-to-work status backed Donald Trump as president. They’ve long been losing manufacturing jobs due to factors having more to do with automation technologies than with powerful unions, said Judy Ancel, director of the Worker Education and Labor Studies program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
“These right-to-work laws do nothing to expand anyone’s rights,” she said. “The political voice of unions will further decline. We’ll see greater poverty. Wages on the whole will go down, tax revenues will go down.”
Q: Does research back that up?
Depends on who’s doing it.
A 2014 report by UMKC economics researcher Michael P. Kelsay determined that Missouri’s shifting to a right-to-work state would result in an annual loss of $1,945 to $2,547 per household across the state.
Caution: The study received funding from the Committee to Protect MO Families, which opposes right-to-work legislation.
A University of Minnesota economist in the late 1990s compared employment growth or decline in counties on the borders of states with right-to-work laws and states without them. Over a 45-year period, manufacturing jobs grew 88.5 percent on the “pro-business side” (or right-to-work states) but only 62.6 percent on the “anti-business side.”
Caution: The author concedes that while policies friendly to business can create jobs, the results of the study “do not say which policies matter.” Did right to work improve the job picture or did low taxes? Or lax environmental rules?
The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis reports that right-to-work states saw 8.6 percent job growth between 2005 and 2015, while employment in non-right-to-work states grew only 5 percent.
Caution: The Wall Street Journal agrees that job growth tends to be stronger in right-to-work states, but wages typically are lower.
Studies compiled by the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research found both “some positive effect on job growth” and “no effect.”
Q: Aren’t union members annoyed by “free riders” sharing the same benefits and work space?
Greater Kansas City AFL-CIO president Pat Dujakovich compared co-workers who refuse to pay dues to neighbors who don’t pay property taxes: You’re putting up the money, but they still get fire protection and streets plowed.
Sure, “there’s some resentment,” said Jim Curry, president of the AFL-CIO in Oklahoma, which became a right-to-work state in 2001. The unions know who’s not ponying up, Curry said, “making it a little tough in the workplace.”
He estimated that fewer than 10 percent of eligible Oklahomans refuse union membership.
Some prominent unions in Kansas report even lower rates of free riding. At the Fairfax General Motors plant, only about 2 percent of employees eligible for United Auto Workers Local 31 membership opt out and pay no dues, which amount monthly to about 2.5 hours of wage, said union financial secretary Dave Barnhart.
“Some people just get it,” he said. “They understand the value unions have had for a lot of working families.”
Among 1,300 members of United Steelworkers Local 307 at a Goodyear plant in Topeka, only a dozen choose not to belong to the local, said Emil Ramirez, the group’s District 11 director.
Q: Are all union leaders opposed to right to work?
Gary Casteel, a UAW Southern Region director, told The Washington Post in 2014 that he preferred organizing in right-to-work environments.
“This is something I’ve never understood, that people think right to work hurts unions,” Casteel said. “To me, it helps them. You don’t have to belong if you don’t want to.
“So if I go to an organizing drive, I can tell these workers, ‘If you don’t like this arrangement, you don’t have to belong.’ Versus, ‘If we get 50 percent of you, then all of you have to belong, whether you like to or not.’ I don’t even like the way that sounds.”
Q: How will business activity change here if Missouri adopts right to work?
Maybe not at all, some speculate.
Despite six decades of right-to-work rules clashing at the Kansas-Missouri border, each side of the metro area boasts a major automaking plant — General Motors in the Fairfax district and the Ford Claycomo plant in Missouri.
“They’re existing and quite healthy ... on both sides of the state line,” said Jeff Pinkerton, an analyst for the Mid-America Regional Planning Council.
Greg Kindle, president of the Wyandotte County Economic Development Council, said from the Kansas side: “I’m not worried about losing companies to Missouri if they adopt right to work. ... When businesses are deciding where to locate, they’re weighing a whole package much bigger than just one component.”
Even some in labor don’t see swift changes on our horizon. Teachers, firefighters and other public workers whose jobs are protected by unions already operate by right-to-work rules, said Dujakovich of the local AFL-CIO.
As for building trades, “contractors here have been working well on both sides of the line for a long time,” he said. “The real concern is long term, this eroding of the middle class and the kinds of people who built this country.”
If Greitens signs right to work, labor interests in Missouri plan a petition to put a proposed repeal before voters statewide next year.
Missourians in fact rejected a right-to-work proposal in 1978. Since then, however, the percentage of union workers across the state has fallen in half.