Dave Helling

Dave Helling: Right-to-work law will force organized labor to look in the mirror

Union pride and the 'right to work' in Missouri

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.
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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.

Missouri will soon have a right-to-work law. Compulsory union membership will be prohibited.

The bill’s passage will mark the climax of a four-decade fight over mandatory union membership in Missouri. There have been ballot measures, vetoes, committee hearings, marches, advertising campaigns.

The right-to-work law probably won’t be the business recruitment tool Republicans think it will be. On the other hand, the law will weaken the power of organized labor in the workplace and may well result in lower pay for some workers.

But Missouri workers still have the right to collectively bargain over wages, workplace safety, seniority, retirement and other issues. The law doesn’t change that.

Collective bargaining is important. It improves the lives of workers and their families.

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At the same time, Missouri’s new right-to-work law is a clear indication labor leaders need to rethink their strategies.

Union membership has dropped dramatically in Missouri, as it has everywhere. In 1964, more than 1 in 4 Missouri workers belonged to a union. Last year, 1 in 10 workers in the state was unionized.

There are lots of reasons for this trend: the decline of manufacturing jobs, the changing nature of the workforce, aggressive union-busting by some business interests. But another reason is the belief among some workers that unions no longer provide enough value for the dues that members are asked to pay.

That isn’t necessarily the fault of union leadership. Many hard-won workers’ rights — overtime, paid vacation, workplace safety — were achieved long ago. Younger workers, accustomed to those benefits and others, may not see how unions made those advances possible.

That means union leaders will have to do a better job explaining their value to members and potential members.

Compulsory union membership may have led to complacency among some union leaders. Now, union leadership will have to fully explain their work and justify their dues. If unions can do that, workers will want to join up.

There’s another factor at work. Unions have long depended on Democratic officeholders to protect their interests in state legislatures and Congress.

But rank-and-file union members increasingly support Republicans at the polls. Last November, Democrat Hillary Clinton carried union households by a mere 8 percent, according to exit polls. That’s the slimmest Democratic margin in 32 years.

Union men and women voted for Donald Trump. They likely voted for down-ballot Republicans as well.

Much of this is cultural. Blue-collar union members are convinced Democrats will take their guns, or impose unacceptable bathroom rules, or otherwise support a more liberal society. They’re within their rights to make that choice. All votes count, regardless of the motivation.

But union members can hardly vote Republican, then complain when Republican laws damage unions.

Union workers in Missouri, and the country, have much work to do. Passage of a right-to-work law is a reminder of how far workers have come, and how far they still have to go.

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