Government & Politics

Unions give big to block ‘right to work’ in expensive Missouri ballot initiative race

Opponents of right to work marched to the Missouri secretary of state's office in August 2017 to drop off petitions seeking a vote to repeal the law.
Opponents of right to work marched to the Missouri secretary of state's office in August 2017 to drop off petitions seeking a vote to repeal the law.

The years-long fight to make Missouri a right-to-work state comes down to a vote by the people in August, and it's shaping up as the most expensive ballot initiative of the year.

We Are Missouri, a political action committee that petitioned to freeze the right-to-work law that was signed last year by then-Gov. Eric Greitens, landed a $1 million single donation this month from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Other labor unions, conservative groups and business interests from across Missouri and the U.S. have been pouring money into four PACs — three working to uphold right to work and one, We Are Missouri, that is looking to repeal it.

“This is going to be one of the most expensive initiatives ever," said Dave Robertson, chair of the political science department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

The right-to-work PACs, for and against, have drawn more than $14 million since efforts to repeal the law began last year and could top a failed 2016 campaign to increase cigarette taxes, but they're still a ways from surpassing a 2006 campaign to expand stem cell research that drew more than $31.3 million.

More than half of the states have adopted right to work laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Missourians' decision, some argue, could slow the national march toward right to work or embolden efforts to change labor laws.

"And that's what I think unions are concerned about — a domino effect of gradually losing power over time because laws will impede their ability to raise money and use it for political campaigns and organizing," Robertson said.

Right to work outlaws compelling employees to join a union and pay dues as a condition of employment. Supporters argue that it protects workers' freedom, but pro-labor organizations say it undermines collective bargaining and lowers wages.

Right to work will appear as Proposition A on voters' primary ballots in August. A "no" vote would prevent the law from going into place. A "yes" vote supports making Missouri a right-to-work state.

Near a Kansas City construction site, laborers comment on pending legislation that would allow employees at a union job site to skirt membership and not pay union dues. It's been that way in Kansas for decades.

"People probably better prepare for every commercial being a right-to-work issue," said Rep. Rick Brattin, R-Harrisonville, who supports the right-to-work law.

So far, Proposition A is the only citizen initiative certified for 2018 ballots, but other issues could end up on the ballot, including raising the minimum wage, legalizing medical marijuana and instituting ethics and redistricting reforms. PACs for and against right to work have outraised all those others combined.

We Are Missouri, the labor-backed campaign hoping to repeal the right-to-work law, had raised $6.9 million as of March 31, according to its April quarterly filing. Since then, the group has raised an additional $3.9 million in large — over $5,000 — donations alone, which it has to report continually as it receives them. The next quarterly filings for campaigns aren't due until July.

Three pro-right-to-work campaigns — Freedom to Work, Missourians for Freedom to Work and Missourians for Worker Freedom — had collectively raised nearly $2.3 million as of March 31. Adding in large donations since then, the campaigns have raised more than $3.3 million.

A New Missouri Inc., a dark-money group tied to Greitens, is responsible for nearly $2.3 million given to Missourians for Worker Freedom and Freedom to Work. Missourians for Worker Freedom, however, hasn't received any large donations since March. Missourians for Freedom to Work emerged in mid-April and has bagged money from the National Right to Work Committee and the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

The governor of Missouri signed legislation enacting a "right-to-work" law on Monday, February 6, in Jefferson City.

Robertson called Missouri a bellwether state for right to work, where the playing ground is more even than in other conservative states. That requires more effort and more money, he said.

“If the opponents of right to work lose this, it’s a big setback for organized labor, and it’ll be felt throughout the country," Robertson said.

The big season for spending that money is still ahead, he said.

We Are Missouri has spent a good chunk of its money on community engagement and printing materials for volunteers knocking on doors. Earlier this month, the campaign announced a television advertising buy but declined to disclose the amount it spent. The ad features an Oklahoma man named Jesse who says he lost his job.

Erin Schrimpf, spokeswoman for We Are Missouri, said the campaign would be running statewide advertisements on right to work from now until August and has an "aggressive door-to-door canvassing effort."

“We have hundreds of supporters throughout the state that are gathering to go talk to their neighbors about this," Schrimpf said.

The group's work ramped up in June, she said. The Missouri General Assembly decided late this session to move the right-to-work vote to August from November.

"Once we had a date, I think we moved out really quickly," Schrimpf said.

Schrimpf attributed the big spending on right to work to a general trend in ballot initiative campaigns.

Brattin said he wasn't surprised that labor groups — whom he accused of "forced unionization" — would be out to stop right to work.

“I think it’s a pretty sad situation that we’re in that we have to continually ... go to the ballot with the initiative petition process that we have that’s so open-ended — the ability to truly, I guess, misinform people to sign onto something," Brattin said.

Brattin said he thought the initiative petition process, which allows citizens to put issues on the ballot by collecting signatures, is important, but he thought it needed reform and accused campaigns of misinforming people who sign petitions.

Right to work, he said, will help people who are being "coerced and forced" to join labor organizations.

“(The) right-to-work issue is going to be the ground zero for every labor organization in the United States to try to turn the tide back into their favor because of all these states starting to adopt right to work," Brattin said.

Robynn Kuhlmann, a political scientist at the University of Central Missouri, said the effectiveness of donations in ballot initiative campaigns can vary.

“Just because a lot of money is being poured into these ballot initiatives," she said, "doesn’t mean the side that has the most money is going to win."