Could Missouri's right-to-work vote be a 'turnaround' for labor? Unions hope so.

As state after state adopts right-to-work laws, national unions are hoping Missouri is the "wall" that the policy's supporters can't get through.

Unions have been fighting the policy for years in Missouri, defeating it at the ballot box 40 years ago. Missourians will be back at the polls again next month, and union officials are telling them they see it as a fight for unions' lives.

“Everyone is wanting to write the labor movement’s obituary," AFL-CIO secretary treasurer Liz Shuler said at a Kansas City rally Tuesday. "Are we going to let that happen?”

The crowd of about 250 union members and volunteers returned a resounding, "No." They were gathered for rally at a local pipe-fitters union hall before setting out for a canvassing effort.

Shuler flew in from Washington, D.C., to visit what she called the "ground zero" in the fight over labor.

Missouri's long-anticipated vote could be the next step in a nationwide march toward right-to-work — or it could be a chance to refute the policy passed by the Missouri General Assembly. It's been on hold since a coalition of opponents gathered enough signatures to put a referendum on the ballot.

The vote comes on the heels of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision that imposed a policy like right-to-work on public-sector unions nationally. State-level right-to-work policies that would also affect the private sector have been gaining steam, with five other states adopting the policy since 2012, including union-heavy Michigan. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, most right-to-work laws were adopted before 1960 and only one state adopted the policy each decade from the 1970s to the early 2000s.

Right-to-work prohibits unions from requiring a person pay union fees as a condition of employment. Workers can already opt out of full union membership and pay only for the cost of collective bargaining with the employer, but under right-to-work, employees could opt out of paying anything for the cost of representation.

Judy Ancel, a labor educator and retired University of Missouri-Kansas City faculty member, said if right-to-work passes in Missouri, the U.S. will be one step closer to a national right-to-work policy.

“The more states that have gone that direction — curbing union rights — the more likely it is that we will see federal legislation attempting to do the same thing, and so I think that Missouri is very important," Ancel said.

Patrick Semmens, vice president for the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, said he thought the vote was important "first and foremost" to Missouri, citing the freedom of choice and economic benefits proponents say come with right-to-work. Semmens noted several other states have adopted right-to-work in recent years, including Michigan, Wisconsin, West Virginia and Kentucky.

“I think that the economic development side has definitely been a reason why a lot of these states have embraced right to work," Semmens said.

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.

National investment

Shuler told union members and volunteers the whole country is watching Missouri's right-to-work vote and she was confident labor would prevail.

"We think Missouri's victory will signal that — that there's a turnaround and that we are a powerful movement," Shuler said.

The labor-backed campaign hoping to defeat Missouri's law and the pro-right-to-work forces that want to uphold it have both received national money and resources in what could be among the most expensive ballot initiative campaigns in recent years.

We Are Missouri, the political action committee hoping to defeat right-to-work, got $1 million from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

A new campaign hoping to uphold right-to-work, called Missourians for Freedom to Work, has received $232,000 from the National Right to Work Committee, an organization affiliated with the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation. The committee lobbies for state and national right-to-work policies.

Semmens said it was hard to say what national implications Missouri's vote might have.

"I think obviously it would be very disappointing for the state of Missouri if it sort of got left behind while its neighbors got so many of the benefits for right to work," Semmens said.

But despite its importance, Benjamin Sachs, a labor and industry professor at Harvard Law School, said the Missouri right-to-work vote is not getting enough national attention.

Effects of right-to-work

Proponents of right-to-work argue it gives workers choice and brings economic benefits to states that implement the policy. Without right-to-work, they say companies looking to relocate workers won't consider Missouri.

Semmens said right-to-work means workers can "no longer be fired" for not becoming full-fledged union members.

"So it gives them that freedom of choice, but on top of that, right to work states have a record of job creation, economic growth, wage growth," Semmens said.

Greg Hoberock, an industrial contractor and president of Missourians for Freedom to Work, said he routinely sees "help wanted" signs offering $8 or $9 per hour in Missouri, but in right-to-work Texas, he sees higher wages. The difference, he said, is that right-to-work attracts job opportunities and creates demand for labor.

“When there’s a huge demand to hire people, the hourly wage goes up," Hoberock said.

Pro-labor groups argue just the opposite. They say right-to-work creates a "free rider" problem where workers can decline to pay for collective bargaining services that benefit them. That weakens unions and drives down wages.

“The unions can’t decide not to represent people," said Sachs, who opposes right-to-work. "They have a legal obligation to do that.”

According to the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, which opposes right-to-work, the policy is not associated with job gains, but it is associated with wage losses.

A 2012 study by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service says right-to-work states have seen modest job gains compared to losses in non-right-to-work states, but it's not clear whether it can be attributed to the policy. Wages in right-to-work states are typically lower, but that's not clearly attributable to right-to-work.

Ancel said it needs to be clear workers cannot be forced to become full union members, but can be required to pay for the collective bargaining services they receive.

"If (Proposition) A passes, workers who support the union have to pay for the services that are rendered to the workers that do not pay," Ancel said. "That's manifestly unfair, and in no other area do we see that."