Government & Politics

As unions spend big, right-to-work’s proponents need ‘more money than we’ve got’

The last time Herb Johnson hit Missourians’ doorsteps in a campaign to stave off right to work, it was 1978. He was a young member of the Machinists Union, and he estimates the state was unionized at three times the rate it is now.

Unions beat back right to work 60 percent to 40 percent.

In 2018, things are different. Having a smaller percentage of the workforce in unions could make thwarting Missouri’s latest effort to implement right to work difficult, but Johnson said technology has made the union-backed campaign more effective, and members’ strong belief in defeating right to work has even retirees out knocking on doors.

“A lot of us have got bad legs and bad knees and other ailments you get when you get up in the older ages, so we don’t have the vitality of the younger folks,” Johnson said. “But we do have the spirit in our hearts, and as a result, many, many, many of our retirees are working at this on a daily basis for however long they’re able to do so.”

Johnson has been working on behalf of We Are Missouri, a union-backed political action committee. On the other side, supporting the right-to-work law, is a coalition of three PACs, including Missourians for Freedom to Work.

Greg Hoberock, treasurer of that PAC, said he thought the campaign had momentum.

“I feel like we do, because it seems donations have increased — more smaller donations, so to speak. I’ve had more calls about ‘How can I help?’ in the last couple weeks — just different things like that, but I can’t tell you that’s an indicator of anything,” Hoberock said.

That interest makes him hopeful, but he said he’s also a “realist.” And asked what it would take to win, he said, “more money than we’ve got.”

Right to work will appear on Missourians’ ballots Tuesday as Proposition A. Voting “no” supports repealing the policy, which was passed last year by the Missouri General Assembly and signed by then-Gov. Eric Greitens. The law has been on hold since a coalition of labor groups petitioned to put it to a vote. Voting “yes” supports making Missouri a right-to-work state.

As the campaign heats up, the two sides are trading barbs.

The Missouri GOP on Tuesday released what it called “threatening” audio of Albert Bond, executive secretary-treasurer of the St. Louis-Kansas City Carpenters Regional Council, calling Jefferson City lawmakers “assholes” and saying if he heard someone on his job site wasn’t paying union dues, he “might drop something on him.”

The carpenters union’s spokeswoman, Stephanie Fleming, said in a statement that the notion that Bond “would actually advocate for violence is ridiculous.”

“We understand that in an election year, many will attempt to mislead voters and distract from the real issues,” Fleming said. “The real issue is that Prop A will lower wages across the board and cost us jobs.”

As fliers appear in mailboxes and yard signs pop up all over the state, many think the momentum is in unions’ favor. But right-to-work proponents are still hoping to turn the tide before the statewide vote.

Missouri Rep. Holly Rehder, R-Sikeston, one of the sponsors of Missouri’s right-to-work legislation, said she was using social media to get the word out and teams of volunteers were knocking on doors in Cape Girardeau.

“My husband has been putting out signs, and we’ve been working together as a team to try to get as much done as possible,” Rehder said.

The Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity-Missouri has been sending mailers and funding digital advertisements to advocate for right to work.

“Out-of-state unions have been dumping a lot of money into the state on this issue, so they got out the door fast,” said Jeremy Cady, state director for the organization. “Everyone noticed a lot of their signs going up, but at the same time here pretty shortly I’ve noticed signage going up for the proponents.”

If those yard signs are a sign of enthusiasm and interest, said Erin Schrimpf, spokeswoman for the union-backed We Are Missouri, the campaign feels good.

“But, you know, yard signs don’t vote, and unfortunately, August’s electorate is going to really depend on turnout and ... enthusiasm,” Schrimpf said.

Turning support into votes is key in a race like the right-to-work referendum. Fewer voters typically turn out for August primaries, so everything comes down to who shows up, what University of Missouri-St. Louis political science chair Dave Robertson called the “ground war.”

He said that works in unions’ favor. The August primary doesn’t give voters much reason to turn out with few contested races. With this issue being the main motivation for some voters to turn out, he said, those who think they’ll be negatively affected — or union members — will be more likely to show up.

Robynn Kuhlmann, a political scientist at the University of Central Missouri, agreed that while the race was too close to call, “it’s looking good for the unions right now.”

She said the two polls taken on right to work weren’t enough to draw decisive conclusions.

A Remington Research Group poll commissioned by the Missouri Times and released last month had 56 percent of surveyed voters opposing right to work. It reported 38 percent said they would vote yes.

An Emerson College poll taken April 26-29 showed a more divided electorate, with 40.2 percent supporting right to work and the same percentage opposing the policy. Nearly 20 percent of the 600 likely registered voters polled were undecided.

Both Robertson and Kuhlmann said they were seeing more union advertising and activity in their respective parts of Missouri — St. Louis and Warrensburg.

Union-backed We Are Missouri has raised more than $16.1 million as compared with pro-right-to-work forces’ $4.3 million, though both sides have volunteers working to turn out the vote. Outside groups on both sides have been pouring money into TV ads.

“We are grossly underfunded,” Hoberock said. “We are being outspent by the union side 8 to 1, 10 to 1.”

He and Cady both lamented the large fundraising totals by We Are Missouri.

Robertson said pro-right-to-work forces may have gone all in to raise funds, “but this sure doesn’t look like it.”

“That, I think, is not only an indicator of the uphill fight that supporters of (right to work) have, but a little bit of resignation to the balance of forces that are going to show up in the August primary,” Robertson said.

The key question, if unions successfully defeat right to work, will be the margin, Robertson said.

“Because a right-to-work bill can just be passed again in the next legislature, but the higher the margin, the more reluctant members of the legislature are going to be to try again,” Robertson said.

During a visit to Kansas City on Thursday, Gov. Mike Parson, who supports right to work, indicated that a loss by any margin would not discourage lawmakers from pushing for right to work again.

“Either way, however the ballot box comes out, no, I don’t think the issue’s over,” Parson said. “This issue’s been around for many years before I arrived in Jeff City and it will continue moving forward. I think it’s good for the state. I understand there’s some opposition to that.”

Cady said he couldn’t predict what would happen Tuesday, but AFP will continue advocating for right to work. If right to work fails, Cady said, the group would discuss it with legislators and Parson next session.

“Just knowing a number of the legislators really want to see right to work done ... I would assume at the very least it gets filed,” Cady said.

Proponents of right to work argue it gives workers the freedom to choose whether to support the union at their workplace. Workers can already opt out of full union membership with full union dues, but they can be required to pay fees that cover unions’ collective bargaining and representation services.

“You still have to support the union, and that union may not be representing you well with the employer,” Cady said.

Right-to-work supporters also say businesses want to set up shop in right-to-work states and won’t look at Missouri without the policy.

Union-backed opponents say the policy lowers wages and weakens unions. They argue it creates a free-rider problem where the union is required to cover workers who aren’t paying for its services.

The Star’s Bryan Lowry contributed to his article.