Missourians voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to reject a proposed right-to-work law, derailing a decades-long push by Republicans and business groups to enact a law reviled by labor unions.
With more than two-thirds of precincts reporting, right to work was losing 65 percent to 35 percent. If that tally holds, it would be more lopsided than the vote in 1978, the last time Missourians rejected a right-to-work law.
“Tonight we send a clear message to any politicians, CEO, dark-money donors who want to silence working people,” Reginald Thomas, the executive vice president of the Greater KC Chapter of the AFL-CIO, told hundreds of union workers and supporters gathered at the Pipefitters Local 553 Hall in Kansas City.
“We will stand together,” he said, “and yell louder than ever before, because our families depend on it.”
The Rev. Holly McKissick of Peace Church UCC recalled the words of union activist Cesar Chavez: “‘The fight is not about grapes or lettuce, it is about the people.’
“Tonight is no different,” she said. “Tonight is about the people.”
Workers in unionized workplaces can already opt out of full union membership and pay only for the cost of collective bargaining with the employer. In right-to-work states, such as Kansas, employees can go one step further and opt out of paying any fees whatsoever to cover the cost of being represented.
Proponents argue that right-to-work laws bolster a state’s economy by creating a more hospitable environment for businesses.
Opponents say the real motivation is political: Republicans want to weaken a political nemesis by allowing some workers to benefit from the contracts that labor unions negotiate without having to contribute to covering the costs of those negotiations.
After years of trying and failing, Republicans celebrated last year when former Gov. Eric Greitens signed legislation making Missouri the country’s 28th right-to-work state.
Yet the celebration was short-lived.
Unions quickly collected more than 300,000 signatures to place right to work on the 2018 ballot. Then they banded together to raise more than $16 million to repeal it — vastly outspending proponents in the months leading up to the vote.
The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a longtime proponent of right to work, issued a statement Tuesday night blaming the unions’ massive fundraising advantage for the defeat.
“As our state became a national battleground over worker freedom, millions of union dollars poured into Missouri to persuade voters,” said Dan Mehan, the chamber’s president and CEO. “These out-of-state groups sent money to Missouri because they were fearful of losing out if Missourians had the power to stop their paychecks from being siphoned to pad union coffers and play politics.”
Republicans, led by Greitens’ dark-money nonprofit, earlier this year staged a brief campaign to put a pro-right-to-work initiative on the 2018 ballot. Although they spent nearly $1 million, the campaign fizzled.
Instead, GOP lawmakers voted to move the right-to-work vote from the November general election ballot to Tuesday’s primary ballot.
The move was widely seen as an effort by Republicans to prevent energized union turnout from affecting the outcome of this fall’s campaigns, most notably the hotly contested race for U.S. Senate between incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill and Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley.
The showdown in Missouri over right to work has garnered national attention.
Unions saw Missouri as a potential firewall. Defeating right-to-work in a conservative Midwestern state, they hoped, could halt efforts to enact the law nationally.
And with Missouri Republicans in no danger of losing their legislative majorities any time soon, unions also hope Tuesday’s vote will discourage lawmakers from coming back next year and simply passing right to work again.
It wouldn’t be the first time lawmakers have reversed the outcome of a statewide vote.
In 1999, Missourians rejected a ballot measure that would have legalized concealed carry of firearms. Four years later, the legislature voted to grant most Missourians the right to carry concealed guns.
In 2008, voters approved a law requiring utilities to increase their investment in renewable energy. Two years later, a legislative committee weakened the law by striking down provisions needed to implement it.
In 2010, voters enacted tough new regulations on puppy mills. The next year, lawmakers voted to repeal the regulations and enact less stringent ones.
Whether Republicans would consider another run at right to work after Tuesday’s defeat at the polls is unclear.
Mehan was adamant that the debate over right to work was not over.
“With the future of our state’s economy on the line,” he said, “we cannot concede hope that Missouri will soon join most other states and pass freedom to work protections.“
When asked about the possibility that Republicans may reintroduce the measure on future ballots, U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver said this is “the second time during my lifetime that Missouri has declared we don’t want to have a right-to-work state.”
“And we declared it loudly and strongly,” he said. “That ought to be it. That’s not an ambiguous statement. It’s not like it’s close and things might change in a week or two. And I think it is pure undistilled arrogance to start talking about putting this on the ballot again. I think it’s an insult to voters.”
For their part, union leaders say they are ready to keep fighting.
“In typical Missouri fashion, you took the attack, you looked it in the eye and you said, ‘Not here, not now, not ever,’ ” Liz Shuler, secretary treasurer of the AFL-CIO, said at the Kansas City event. “Tomorrow we get back to work. Tomorrow we continue to organize and march and make our voices heard. And 2018 is the year of the worker, and we are just getting started.”