No one ever said that American labor issues are settled with logic, and the nation's first "right-to-work" vote in 20 years here in Missouri is no exception.
The stakes are high: somewhere between $4 million and $8 million will apparently be spent on a referendum next Tuesday that will affect about 525,000 union workers in one of the nations's 10 most industrialized states. At issue is Amendment 23, which would outlaw clauses in labor contracts requiring workers to join unions or pay dues in order to hold their jobs.
The high stakes - the vote here is expected to have a major impact on efforts to exand the number of states, now 20, that have "right-to-work" laws* - have produced a campaign as bizarre as it is important.
On a recent Saturday, for example, Carney Williams, a striking power company employe, walked a picket line as usual - but the next day he cut television commercials against unions and in favour of "right-to-work."
About the same time, George Lehr cheered on some 500 organized firefighters as he urged them to defeat "right-to-work" because it would "undercut" wages. But Lehr is no labor boss: he's the board chairman of a bank.
Then there were the "right-to-work" supporters who cried foul over alleged union harassment as they circulated petitions to put "right-to-work" on the ballot. But when the petitions were in, three state Supreme Court justices also called foul - over fraud involving the petition signatures.
Or consider the union leaders who complain of "outsiders" and big money being behind the "right-to-work" drive. Yet a key operative in the union's campaign is a Washington, D.C., political consultant who wants to hire all the taxicabs in Kansas City and St. Louis on election day to get voters to the polls.
And finally, there are the "right-to-work" people who argue that union shops lead to all-too-frequent work stoppages, but one company supporting "right-to-work" Kansas City Power & Light, may be prolonging to strike by 2,100 of its employes to help win favor for "right-to-work." The utility gave $30,000 to the "right-to-work" effort but denies locking out its employes in a strike that began July 1 and now is the longest in the state's history.
But if there is neither logic nor dispassion to "right-to-work" here, neither is there gratitude. Missouri farmers who went on strike last winter to protest their low prices and welcomed assistance and food packagers from organized labor have so far refused to rally to labor's cause.
The vote is expected to have such national impact that the National Right to Work Committee in Washington opposed this referendum for fear that a defeat here would set back its cause elsewhere.
Others, however, see gains in other states if a state as heavily unionized and industrialized as Missouri approves "right-to-work." Approval here, some people say, may even help prod Congress to pass a national "right-to-work" law.
"Right-to-work" gains in other states are also at stake next Tuesday. Two gubernatorial races, in New Mexico and in Idaho, will determine whether those state get "right-to--work" laws as early as next year.
So important is the vote here that each side expects to spend about $2 million. Each says, too, that the oppsition may spend up to $4 million, with money coming mostly from Missouri businesses that favor "right-to-work" and, on the other side, large labor unions that oppose it.
A poll by the Kansas City Star and Times newspapers said Saturday that 54 percent of Missouri voters oppose "right-to-work" and 33 percent favor it.
What is really at issue here, as organized labor and others see it, is a possible serious weakening of unions, a blow that would ultimately bring lower wages for union workers and nonunion workers whose wages are keyed to union pay scales.
"They," says United Auto Workers President Douglas Fraser, "want to weaken the labor movement, weaken us in negotiations. They want to destroy us and crush us, and if they're successful in Missouri, they're going to keep marching North."
"Too many firms expand in other states," says Miller Nichols, a Kansas City developer who cites economic growth in the five states abutting Missouri that have "right-to-work" laws. "Other firms look at us [Kansas City, Mo.] and don't decide in our favor."
Like others to see "right-to-work" as a means toward new industry and more jobs. "Our economy is faltering because of [not having right-to-work]," says Nichols.
In some ways, the division over "right-to-work" reflects divisions within the state, between eastern, more industrial St. Louis, and western, agribusiness-oriented Kansas City.
The Chamber of Commerce here supports the amendment, while its counterpart in St. Louis, where large labor unions work at Anheuser-Busch breweries, McDonnell Douglas and Mondanto, has taken no position , citing harmonious labor relations there.
Kansas City, however, has seen a long series of disruptive and some times violent strikes in recent years.
"Right-to-work" supporters cite statistic after statistic that portray greater economic growth in "right-to-work" states, claimin* g that Missouri lost 17,000 jobs from 1970 to 1976. Opponents cite lower wages (92 cents an hour) and higher poverty in those same states.
Unemployment in Missouri in September was 4.4 percent, compared with a national rate of 6 percent. State employment officials say the number of jobholders in the state increased by 116,548 in the past year - a rate of 2,241 a week.
What it is going to come down to on election day, says George Lehr of Traders Bank, whose grandfather was a 10-cent-day coal miner, is economics. "That's what it's all about - their pocketbooks," he said, "how people see 'right-to-work' affecting their pocketbooks."
However, Nichols says that "right-to-work" is not a wages issue but adds that he is worried that labor will successfully protray it that way. "And once you put better on hot toast," he says, "it's awfully hard to get it off."