In a badly needed victory for organized labor, a coalition of workersâ rights groups in Missouri is poised to halt a devastating new anti-union law from taking effect later this month.
The deceptively named âright-to-workâ (RTW) legislationâquickly passed and signed into law this February by Missouriâs new Republican governor, Eric Greitensâwould prohibit unions in private sector workplaces from automatically collecting dues from the workers they are legally required to represent. Designed to decimate unions by cutting off their financial resources, RTW laws are currently in place in 27 other states.
Though the law is set to take effect on August 28, the pro-union We Are Missouri coalition, led by the Missouri AFL-CIO, says it has collected enough signatures from voters to call for a state-wide referendum in November 2018 that could nullify the legislation. Implementation of the RTW law would be put on hold at least until next yearâs referendum results are known.
We Are Missouri spokesperson Laura Swinford tellsÂ In These TimesÂ that Republican legislators had been wanting to passÂ a RTWÂ law for years, but were blocked by Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon. As soon as Greitens was elected last November, she says, âfolks were prepared.â
Missouri allows residents to call a referendum on new legislation by collecting signatures from at least 5 percent of voters from six of the stateâs eight congressional districts. âWhen Gov. Greitens signed the so-called âright-to-workâ law, we had a petition ready to go,â Swinford explains.
We Are Missouri estimated it would need to collect at least 100,000 signatures to call a referendum on the RTW law. Swinford says volunteer canvassers went to festivals, concerts, county fairs and other events in every county to gather signatures. âOur volunteers have gone out there day after day,Â weekendÂ after weekend, going signature by signature, page by page.â
So far, the coalition has tripled its initial estimation, collecting overÂ 300,000 signatures.Â During a rally at the state capitol today, We Are Missouri turned in the petition along with 310,567 signatures.
âWe have gotten a tremendous response,â Swinford says. âWe believe weâre going to qualify in all eight congressional districts, which is pretty unprecedented here in Missouri. We have way overshot our goals.â
The National Right to Work Foundation sued to block the initiative on the grounds that the petition containedÂ bad grammar, but the Missouri Court of AppealsÂ threw out the lawsuitÂ last month. Now that it appears they will not be able to prevent a referendum from appearing on next yearâs ballot, Missouri RTW advocates are gearing up for a showdown in November 2018.
Over the past week, three anti-union political action committees in the state have received a total of $600,000 inÂ dark money contributions. At least $100,000 of this money came from Gov. Greitensâs ownÂ nonprofit. Meanwhile, the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity Foundation recently launched an expensive âeducation campaignââincluding ads, door-to-door canvassing, and phone callsâto convince voters to approve the RTW law.
Swinford says anti-union forces are also resorting to âold-school intimidation tactics.â Last week, four men circulating pro-RTW brochures wereÂ spotted carrying pistolsÂ outside the Buchanan County courthouse in St. Joseph.
âYou can open carry here in Missouri, but when you see something like that in front of your county courthouse, itâs alarming and upsetting,â says Swinford. âItâs going be a hard campaign, especially when you have to deal with those sorts of tactics. We just hope that people are safe.â
Missouriâs Republican lawmakers also recently passed legislation that willÂ cut the St. Louis minimum wageÂ from its current rate of $10 per hour to $7.70. The âright-to-workâ law would also likely have a negative effect on worker pay, as wages are on averageÂ 3.2 percent lowerÂ in RTW states than those without RTW laws on the books.
Swinford says RTW would be âterribly hurtful to many Missouri families. It not only would lower wages across the board, it would erode benefits and make worksites less safe.â
In the past five years, more states have passed RTW legislation that at any time since the 1950s. Until recently, most RTW states were located in the former Confederacy, but now even traditional union strongholds like Michigan and Wisconsin are âright-to-work.â
Anti-union forces are not resting on their laurels. Earlier this year, House RepublicansÂ introduced a national RTWÂ law, and the Supreme CourtÂ could soon hear a caseÂ that threatens to impose RTW on the entire public sector.
ButÂ anti-unionÂ legislation has been defeated before. In 2011, labor groups in Ohio called a referendum thatÂ successfully overturnedÂ the controversial Senate Bill 5, which would have severely curtailed public sector workersâ collective bargaining rights.
âWhat happened in Ohio shows that itâs possible to really educate folks and show them thereâs a way to stand up when your legislature overreaches,â Swinford says.
âMissouri is not the only state that has a problem with extremists running amok in the legislature,â she continues. âWe have the ability here through the referendum process to call them out on this behavior, to stand up and say, âEnough. We want you to work on the real problems we have in our state.ââ
Swinford notes that she and other organizers have been amazed at how the referendum campaign has unified people of different backgrounds and communities. âPeople have really joined together on this. We have a lot of confidence in Missouri voters that theyâll be there in November 2018.â
This article was originally published at In These Times onÂ August 18, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author:Â Jeff Schuhrke is a Working In These Times contributor based in Chicago. He has a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in labor history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Follow him on Twitter: @JeffSchuhrke.