For Missouri Unions, the Battle Is Far from Over

(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

On August 7, 2018, Missouri voters rejected the state's "right to work" law by a margin of 2 to 1.

Missouri unions will have little time to catch their breath after their decisive victory at the ballot box on Tuesday.

By a 2-to-1 margin, voters in the Show Me State rejected a “right to work” law that would have allowed both public- and private-sector workers in unionized workplaces to opt out of paying dues to the unions that would still be required to bargain contracts for them and represent them in disputes with management. Similar “right to work” legislation has led to significant drops in union revenues and rolls in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana.

Missouri Republicans had for decades pushed for the law, and finally got their chance after the 2016 election of former Governor Eric Greitens, who was forced to resign in June amid a months-long scandal and felony charges. The ballot initiative would have made Missouri the country’s 28th “right to work” state.

Tuesday’s vote forced conservatives back to the drawing board. And while unions in the state may be safe from any new legislative threats for the moment—the Republican-controlled legislature is on break until the 2019 legislative session—there are still plenty of existing threats to contend with.

Another bill, H.B. 1413, which was one of 77 signed into law by Greitens hours before he stepped down, requires unionized government workers to vote every three years on whether they still want their union to represent them. Any union that fails to get a vote of recertification from a majority of its members would be blocked from representing those workers entirely.

A crucial aspect of the new law is that it requires unions to win a majority not just of those members voting, but all members, whether or not they vote. No such laws pertain to elected officials in Missouri, or anyplace else in the United States, none of whom are required to win a majority of all voting-age citizens in their states or districts in order to legally represent them in legislatures, city councils, Congress, or executive offices. Given the nation’s voter participation rates, if elected public officials had to clear the same bar as the one that will soon be imposed on Missouri’s unions, Missouri’s legislature, and those of the other 49 states, would have few if any members.

“At the minimum, this will require unions to divert resources and time to the process of getting recertified,” says University of Missouri law professor Rafael Gely. “It also makes the possibility of decertification more likely.”

The new law also places strict limitations on the matters that can be collectively bargained for by unions. Under the law, every union contract must give public employers the right to “to hire, promote, assign, direct, transfer, schedule, discipline, and discharge public employees.” It also prohibits labor agreements from allowing any kind of striking or picketing. Both provisions would severely undermine the functions of organized labor in Missouri.

The law is scheduled to go into effect on August 28. According to Missouri AFL-CIO President Mike Louis, there’s still enough time to challenge the law in court.

“There’s still a window of opportunity to challenge the law and we have several doubts about its legalities,” says Louis.

The AFL-CIO is currently working with other groups to mount a legal challenge. Louis did not disclose partner groups involved or specifics on the coalition’s legal strategy.

According to Gely, opponents of H.B. 1413 may be able to use the state’s own constitution as the foundation for a challenge. Missouri has had a provision in its constitution guaranteeing the right to collective bargaining for all employees since 1945. In 2007, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the provision, which had until then had been restricted to private-sector workers, had to include government employees as well.

“Unions could make the case that the law [H.B. 1413] interferes with the state constitutional right to collective bargaining,” says Gely. “The statute affects collective bargaining, the right to strike, and includes language regarding the prohibition of employers voluntarily recognizing unions. All of those limitations eviscerate the constitutional right to collectively bargain under Missouri’s constitution.”

H.B. 1413 isn’t the only challenge Missouri labor must confront. Last May, with Wisconsin Governor (and bête noire of Wisconsin unions) Scott Walker looking on, Greitens signed a bill banning cities and counties from entering into “Project Labor Agreements” that mandate contractors pay union wages and adhere to collective-bargaining agreements for construction work on public-works projects like jails, police stations, and schools. Local governments that disobey the law risk losing state funding and tax credits for as long as two years.

A few months later, Greitens did away with efforts by the city of St. Louis to establish a different minimum wage from the statewide wage. The minimum wage, which had been already been raised to $10 in the city, thereby reverted to $7.70, causing a pay cut for an estimated 35,000 workers.

Greitens may be gone, but the embattled governor’s exit won’t provide labor unions in the state much respite. Missouri’s new governor, Mike Parson, who served as Greitens’s lieutenant governor, told The Kansas City Star last week that Tuesday’s vote is unlikely to be the final say on “right to work” legislation.

“I think it is an issue that’s been going on for many years before I arrived in Jeff City [state capital Jefferson City] and will continue to move forward. I think it [right to work] is good for the state of Missouri,” Parson said. “I understand there’s some opposition to that.” (In fact, 67.5 percent of Missouri voters rejected the right-to-work bill with nearly every county in the state voting against it.)

The Missouri House of Representatives had also passed a bill that would have inserted a “right to work” constitutional amendment on the November ballot, but the legislative session concluded before the state Senate could consider the measure. The amendment would have added to the state’s constitution language almost identical to that in the ballot initiative that was shot down by voters on Tuesday.

Missouri Republicans—some of whom, like Parson, appear blithely indifferent to Tuesday’s lopsided verdict—could pass yet another version of the “right to work” legislation when the legislature reconvenes, although some Republicans from districts that voted strongly against the initiative have appeared hesitant to so nakedly flout their constituents’ considered judgment. The matter may be pushed down the road a few years before being revived.

“We hope that result of [Tuesday’s] ballot initiative, the sheer number of Missourians that stood together to rebuke ‘right to work’ policies, is not ignored by Republicans,” says Louis. “We hope that they move on and start focusing on more important things, like creating better-paying jobs and increasing funding for our schools.”

If history is any guide, that will almost surely to prove to be wishful thinking. What’s clear is that unions in Missouri (or any other red state, for that matter) don’t have the luxury of lowering their guard. The afterglow from Tuesday’s victory on the ballot initiative will be short-lived.

Tax Cuts for the rich. Deregulation for the powerful. Wage suppression for everyone else. These are the tenets of trickle-down economics, the conservatives’ age-old strategy for advantaging the interests of the rich and powerful over those of the middle class and poor. The articles in Trickle-Downers are devoted, first, to exposing and refuting these lies, but equally, to reminding Americans that these claims aren’t made because they are true. Rather, they are made because they are the most effective way elites have found to bully, confuse and intimidate middle- and working-class voters. Trickle-down claims are not real economics. They are negotiating strategies. Here at the Prospect, we hope to help you win that negotiation.

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