Organized labor won big in Missouri right-to-work election. What should unions do next?

Union members and leaders celebrated overturning Missouri’s right to work law in August at Pipefitters Local 533 Hall in Kansas City.
Union members and leaders celebrated overturning Missouri’s right to work law in August at Pipefitters Local 533 Hall in Kansas City. The Star

Organized labor won an important and needed victory Tuesday when Missourians overwhelmingly rejected a so-called right-to-work proposal in the state.

The measure would have allowed private non-union workers in Missouri to enjoy the benefits of collectively bargaining without paying the union that negotiated the contract. Supporters claimed the change would give workers “freedom,” when the real purpose was to lower wages across Missouri.

We urged voters to reject Proposition A.

Now, though, organized labor has a responsibility to the 937,000 Missourians who opposed Prop A, and indeed to the entire state, to think about its approach to several public policy issues.

Defeating right-to-work legislation is not a blank check for union leaders. They must continue to work hard on behalf of members so that workers understand the benefits of collective bargaining without the perceived coercion of a closed shop.

Unions can also do a much better job of recruiting minority and women members. The recent struggle to engage non-union minority firms in the work at Kansas City International Airport shows the need for a more aggressive push to include minorities and women in labor organizations.

More than 80 percent of voters in Kansas City south of the river rejected Proposition A. Labor groups that relied on those votes should make sure the entire community sees the benefits of collective bargaining.

Labor should also re-examine its approach to high tariffs, trade wars and protectionism.

In the short term, high tariffs on foreign goods such as steel, aluminum and automobiles can drive up union employment, and raise wages for union workers.

But the approach is short-sighted. Protectionism can lead to higher prices for consumers while insulating companies from any impetus to do a better job.

We support free trade. Like most Americans, we also support fair trade — other nations must treat us as we treat them. But a long-running trade war will eventually mean lower employment for all Americans, higher prices and a stalled economy.

Finally, union members should re-examine some of their views on partisan politics.

While labor leaders typically support a progressive policy agenda, it’s no secret many rank-and-file members vote for conservative candidates.

Hundreds of thousands of non-union voters supported labor Tuesday. Now, unions should renew their commitment to helping people who need help: expanding Medicaid, supporting a just policy on food stamps and other income supplements, quality schools and more.

Tuesday, Missourians protected working men and women across the state. Now, working men and women should protect their neighbors at the ballot box by supporting politicians trying to make Missouri a fairer place for everyone.