Missouri Votes on Right-to-Work – Again

Auckland       Unbelievably, workers and their families, and, well, everyone registered to vote once again has to go to the polls on the whether or not businesses can impose so-called right-to-work legislation in Missouri. This isn’t the first time.In the last 50 years, if memory serves, unions have had to beat back these corporate challenges at least twice, and thus far always been successful.

Missouri is simply one barometer of how contentious this issue continues to be since the first right-to-work laws were passed after Taft-Hartley kicked the ball over to the states in the 1950s when previously union shops, and even closed shops, had been allowed. Many southern states led the right-to-work train. Louisiana was the last to fall twenty years later in 1976.  The anti-union, anti-worker push has continued to grow extending right-to-work even to the bastion of Michigan. Now, there are 23 states and the District of Columbia that allow union shop provisions and 27 that are right-to-work.

Right-to-work has nothing to do with work or getting a job. The title has been clever – and effective political marketing.Right-to-work legislation simply means that when unions represent workers in collective bargaining agreements they have the ability to negotiate with their employers certain fees for the mandatory representation obligation that is the responsibility of unions under the exclusive representation interpretation that has emerged under decisions of the National Labor Relations Act.Economic studies find that workers in right-to-work states make an average of 3.1% less in wages.

Unions are hardened to this fight in Missouri.  The conservative, Republican legislature passed a right-to-work statue during the last term of the legislature that was promptly signed by the Republican governor.  Labor and their allies quickly got more than 300,000 signatures to repeal the legislative action on the ballot. The right-to-work proponents played the last trick in their hand by scheduling the vote in the August primaries where there would be fewer base voters than the November midterm general elections, so the vote is coming now.

In a rarity union backed groups have outspent their opponents, raising almost $12 million to the over $3 million that anti-union groups have pulled together according to the Missouri Election Commission. Some odds favor the momentum of labor in this ballot.Missouri’s “show me” voters have tended to reject legislative acts when they have the chance to have their voice heard by voting.Anti-worker business interests are hoping they still have some steam in their tank in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Janus decision that recently eliminated agency fee agreements for public employees. The Wall Street Journal has reported that 24,000 public workers in Pennsylvania and 31,000 in New York ceased fee payments potentially cost unions more than $16 million in dues revenue.

Class struggle seems to never have an expiration date, and in Missouri it shows its ugly face every decade or so in the struggle over right-to-work.I’m betting on unions and workers again, but it’s never a sure thing.

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Janus Comes with a Call for Renewal

Manderson      In a torrent of bad news from the Supreme Court, the much expected decision in Janus v. AFSCME eliminating union service fees for public sector workers arrived with a 5-4 thud on the doors of unions and their allies everywhere.  There is no way to pretend that the impact will not be devastating in the twenty plus states that allowed such fees to be collected.

The whole point was to deprive unions of financial resources that have been paid as service or agency fees in lieu of actual membership dues, and major public sector unions like AFSCME, SEIU, and CWA will see sharp declines in revenues no matter the huge efforts made to prepare for this decision.  This victory in the long war by the right to “defund the left,” as the project has been termed for decades, will impact more than just workers and their public sector workplaces.   There will be drastically less money for organizing programs to rebuild unions.  In the states that allowed agency fees as well as nationally there will also be fewer resources for other progressive initiatives and organizations that have depended on labor support and contributions.  The impact of this decision will be seismic.

Will it be catastrophic is another question entirely?  The labor movement has organized and won against the odds in right-to-work states without agency shop.  Look at the success of the Culinary Workers in Las Vegas.  Look at the recent surge of activity by teachers in Oklahoma, North Carolina, and Arizona – all right-to-work bastions.  This can be done in the United States though it takes solid, persistent organizing on a daily basis.

Globally such dues arrangements are largely unknown.   Prime Minister Thatcher removed any such arrangements more than two decades ago and even under subsequent Labor Party majorities, unions did not make a priority of restoring this level of union security.  Unions are still critical forces in the United Kingdom both at the workplace and increasingly in the community, but they rely on support from their members, and in fact do so increasingly without the benefit of even payroll deduction.

What the Janus decision must mean is an opportunity to rebuild labor unions with new organizing models.  This won’t be a discussion of the gig economy or using technology differently.  To regain members from fee-payers means a different level of involvement at the roots of the union with the rank-and-file.  There will have to be a democratization and reactivation at the membership level.  There will have to be more dependence on the membership for everything from organizing to political action.  Unions will have to fully become unions again rather than political institutions that represent workers.

Janus is not welcome because it speaks to the class and corporate animus that prevails in these gilded times, but that’s the challenge and opportunity forced on institutional labor now.  If we can rise to the task, we’ll all be better for it.

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