The Meaning of Labor's Win in Missouri

(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

A sign against Proposition A in Kansas City, Missouri, on August 1, 2018

Union supporters were able to rest easy on the primary night of Tuesday, August 7. Early in the evening, news outlets reported that the “right to work” initiative on the ballot was trailing badly, and many counties where it was expected to fail hadn’t yet tallied their votes.

Yet something extraordinary awaited those who put off sleep. As the night crept on, and the precinct results poured in, what looked initially like a solid labor victory turned into an absolute rout. In the end, two-thirds of Missouri voters rejected Proposition A, the state’s “right to work” bill, sinking it by a 67 percent to 33 percent margin.

The last time a “right to work” measure was on the ballot in Missouri was 40 years ago. Union supporters beat back that initiative in 1978 by a decisive 20 points. 

The 1978 result might not have surprised many at the time. Back in the late 1970s, nearly one out of every four workers in Missouri belonged to a labor union, and union members and their leaders are always the core constituency opposing “right to work” campaigns. 

With roughly a fourth of the workforce organized, another large fraction of the state’s electorate was married to, otherwise related to, or neighbors with a union member. They likely heard from members what researchers have found in studies of “right to work”: that the passage of these laws leads to declines in union memberships—an outcome, of course, that is a core motivation for “right to work” backers.

Declining union memberships, meanwhile, have their own set of consequences, none of them positive from the perspective of average workers. A growing body of scholarship finds that membership declines are associated with lower pay and worse benefits, not only for formerly organized workers but also for non-union workers who benefit from a strong union presence.

That matters, because even at the peak of labor movement membership in both the United States and Missouri, the majority of workers weren’t unionized.

Patrick Denice and I have some forthcoming research which finds that non-union, private-sector workers—that is, the majority of the workforce—would earn substantially more if unions were as strong today as they were in the late 1970s. Among non-union men working full-time in the private sector, we find that annual pay would be approximately $3,170 higher had unionization rates not tumbled from the 1970s on. Among non-union, full-time women workers in the private sector, annual wages would be $935 higher absent union decline.

These positive “spillover” effects are especially large in occupations where organized labor still retains a sizable presence in Missouri, like construction. A typical construction worker in the state earns $24 an hour, $7 more than the state’s median hourly wage. Had Proposition A passed, a predictable consequence would have been a reduction in the number of unionized construction workers, and with that, lower pay for union and non-union construction workers alike.

Outside of construction and a handful of other industries, the story for unions in Missouri has been bleak. Today, fewer than one in ten workers belongs to a union; the private-sector rate is 7.5 percent, just one point higher than the national average.

The decimation of organized labor in Missouri since the last time “right to work” was on the ballot makes the defeat of Proposition A all the more surprising—and, perhaps, important. It is one thing to vote down an anti-union measure when a sizable fraction of the electorate belongs to or is closely related to someone in a union. It is another thing altogether to do so when few workers have any direct or indirect experience with organized labor. In the end, four times as many Missourians voted against the measure as there are union members in the entire state. Opposition to the measure crossed party lines as well. Early calculations suggest as many as half of the Republican voters rejected Proposition A.

The hundreds of thousands of non-union voters who voted against Proposition A provide the real story of labor’s large win in Missouri. Contrary to conventional wisdom, unions are increasingly popular, surprisingly so given all the negative press and political hits they have taken over recent years. According to a 2017 Gallup poll, more than 60 percent of U.S. adults approve of labor unions. Far more Americans say unions should have more influence in this country rather than less. Younger Americans, in particular, approve of what unions do: Two-thirds of those aged 18 to 34 support them.

A recent survey by a team of researchers at MIT provides union leaders and union supporters even more grounds for optimism. The researchers asked non-union, non-managerial workers whether they would support a unionization drive at their workplace. Half of the respondents replied yes, revealing a huge pent-up demand for workplace representation.

Yet the exception to this growing body of encouraging public opinion on unions had been the data on “right to work.” Polls consistently find majority support for these measures. Union opponents’ effective branding of the issue likely explains much of its popularity. If you’re unfamiliar with unions and what they do, why wouldn’t you support your so-called “right to work”?

What the win in Missouri has taught the broader labor movement is that a sustained, well-financed campaign can educate a largely non-union electorate about “right to work” laws, successfully, and truthfully, recasting them as anti-worker. Labor’s victory in the state also provides the wider movement with more evidence that, despite a series of setbacks in the courts and state legislatures, the public stands with it on key issues.

That public support is needed now more than ever. While the defeat of Proposition A is rightly being celebrated among union supporters, the win is largely symbolic. All it does is restore the status quo to collective bargaining in the state, a status quo that has been anything but friendly to unions over recent decades.

Nonetheless, the victory reveals growing recognition on the part of union and non-union workers of what a weakened labor movement leads to: lower wage growth, higher poverty, and, in general, a two-tiered economy decisively tilted toward the interests of the richest among us. The next step for unions and their allies is to harness this widespread support for their cause and translate it to policy victories that go beyond the symbolic. Missouri has shown the labor movement that the public is ready to join the fight.