Missouri’s workers and their supporters celebrated on August 8 after the primary election vote count showed the nationwide drive for right to work (RTW) had come to a screeching halt. Labor educator Judy Ancel explained to this reporter the importance of the measure, “When you look at a map of the Midwest right-to-work states, Missouri sticks into them like a thumb plugging a hole in a wall that’s leaking something toxic.”
An overwhelming 67 percent voted to overturn the anti-union law — for the second time in state history! A statewide mobilization led by unions and rank-and-file members walked precincts, held rallies, made phone calls and ultimately derailed the national anti-union campaign.
The first round. Right to work, an ugly, misnamed inheritance from Jim Crow segregation, promotes non-union work places, low wages, no protections against discrimination, and unsafe worksites. In 1978, Missouri appeared ripe for passage of an anti-worker law. The National Right to Work Committee put the union-busting measure on the ballot and expected an easy win.
Early polls showed the right-wing measure ahead by a 2-1 margin. The AFL-CIO’s plan was to fight the issue in the courts. But Missouri unionists had a different idea. The state had an industrial base and a labor movement with a large Black membership. African American unionists helped shape the successful strategy to defeat right to work. It included local unions reaching out to friends and civil rights groups. Jerry Tucker, an organizer for the United Auto Workers who helped manage the 1978 campaign, wrote, “Rank-and-file unionists were the mainstay of the campaign … some couldn’t seem to do enough, and … thought their leaders weren’t doing enough.”
The coalition registered 100,000 union members as new voters and educated about the dangers of right to work to all working people. Coretta Scott King went to Missouri to campaign and pointed out that RTW hurts people of color and the poor the most. Ministers outreached to Black wards, women’s groups held rallies and seniors excelled in canvassing. The ballot measure lost by a two-thirds margin.
Years afterwards, Tucker warned that, “The many-layered, multi-textured anti-right-to-work campaign stunned a fast-growing new anti-labor right wing in America. Unfortunately, the campaign’s architecture, its strategies, tactics, energies, and social dimensions, which had ‘movement-building’ stamped all over them … wound up in a dusty trophy cabinet.”
RTW returns to Missouri. What followed was a forty-year decline of union power. In Missouri, union membership fell by half. By 2010, Tea Party-fueled elections in Midwest and border states stacked state governments with right-wing ideologues whose target was organized labor. Michigan, birthplace of the United Auto Workers, went right to work in 2012. West Virginia, Indiana, Wisconsin and Kentucky followed suit.
Richard Von Glahn of Missouri Jobs with Justice told this reporter, “the Koch brothers bought the governor’s seat and the legislature and paid fifteen million dollars for them.” The right-to-work measure was passed and signed by the governor on Feb. 6, 2017.
Two weeks later, We Are Missouri was organized. Within months this coalition had three times the signatures required to put the measure on the ballot before it could become law. The 2018 campaign was statewide and volunteer driven. Canvassers talked about how right to work costs all workers money, public services, and quality of life. Annual wages average nearly nine thousand dollars less in right-to-work states. Black workers’, particularly Black women’s wages, are even lower. RTW endangers healthcare and retirement benefits.
The ground game was crucial. Organizers estimate they knocked on 870,000 doors, often several times, made over a million phone calls, and placed 100,000 yard signs. They partnered with Missouri Healthcare for All and the Sierra Club.
A race issue. The union campaign, according to Ancel, stumbled on race. There was tension between building trades unions, mostly white and male, and minority and women contractors, half of them non-union, over jobs building Kansas City’s new airport. This threatened the anti-RTW campaign. Ancel said “Labor leadership focuses on its own institutional goals, like prevailing wages or right to work, rather than on how those issues affect the broader working class. In Kansas City, it was Black labor leadership that recruited other community leaders and took RTW directly to the Black community because it would hurt Black workers the most.”
The campaigners explained that unions represent all workers, and that most working families included union members. Campaigners spoke at their churches. Martin Luther King III rallied, describing his father’s opposition to right to work and his mother’s visit to speak against the 1978 measure. This helped turn out the Black community, which made up 79 percent of all votes in Kansas City alone.
What next? Another win was raising the minimum wage in November. Both victories show that the leadership of Black workers, who connect the fight for unions with the myriad issues Blacks generally face, is essential. There needs to be a plan to keep this coalition together for more long-term goals.
Missouri’s trade unions can be proud of their victory in a state that went overwhelmingly for Trump. And other unions can use their model to re-energize the ranks of labor so that the Missouri victory can spread.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org