While most of the attention in Tuesday’s elections was focused on the special election for a House seat in Ohio, there was another surprising outcome: Voters in Missouri roundly rejected a “right to work” law that had been passed by the legislature, a rare win for labor unions and workers at a moment when the right’s war on collective bargaining has been extraordinarily successful.
The question now is whether this will amount to just a momentary victory amid a wave of losses that continues to degrade workers’ power, and how this issue will play out in future elections.
This initiative sought to validate a law passed by the Republican-controlled state government, which would have forbidden unions from negotiating contracts in which workers in a particular company who choose not to join the union still have to pay “fair-share fees” to support the union’s bargaining on their behalf. Calling such laws “right to work” is one of the right’s greatest bits of political marketing, since no one is actually denied a right to work by those fees; all that they’re asked is to contribute to those who are negotiating wages and benefits for them.
But that can take some time to explain, which is why right-to-work laws can get a good deal of support, particularly when there hasn’t been much time to debate them. There are now 27 states, mostly in the South and Midwest, where they’re on the books. Yet in Missouri, the voters rejected “right to work” by a stunning 2-1 margin. That’s partly explained by a heavy investment from unions in an election with relatively low turnout, but it’s still a significant victory. And we should note that Republicans in the legislature moved this referendum from the general election to a primary with only contested Republican races, in the hopes that Democratic turnout would be low and the unions wouldn’t have time to organize. But their plan failed.
A note about right-to-work laws: The argument that corporations and their Republican allies make in their favor is that if companies know that unions are weak in your state, they’ll be more likely to bring jobs there. What they don’t say is if they’re right about that, it’s because companies know that if they don’t have to deal with a union, that means they they can pay lower wages, offer fewer benefits and generally treat their workers however they like.
Studying the overall effects of right-to-work laws isn’t easy, because so many factors influence jobs and wages in any given state. But there’s good evidence that while such laws have a minimal effect on job creation, they do depress wages. Which is exactly what you’d expect, since union members make higher wages than non-union members. This isn’t even something worth arguing about, since the corporations who spearhead the fight against unions do so precisely because they want to pay the lowest wages they can. The whole point of collective bargaining is that workers can get a better deal together than each one can alone. Unions give workers the power to negotiate better deals, and that’s why corporations hate them. It’s not complicated.
Over the past few decades, the right has invested billions of dollars in its war on unions, not only so that corporations can maximize profits but also because unions help Democrats get elected. They do that directly by aiding Democratic candidates, but also indirectly because they politicize workers. One of the most important things unions do is show workers that they aren’t isolated and that their problems might have collective solutions. It’s not just that your boss is a jerk; it’s that he’s part of a larger system, including laws passed by politicians, that gives him all the power over you. Once you realize that, you become less likely to vote for Republicans who want to keep the minimum wage low, eliminate workplace safety protections, and give big tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy. Your whole perspective on economics can change, which is what Republicans are afraid of.
The unfortunate fact is that the long war on unions has been extraordinarily successful. Only 10.7 percent of Americans are now union members, half of the figure in the 1980s. The number is much higher among public-sector workers, but that could change. In June, the conservative majority on the Supreme Court essentially enacted a right-to-work law for all government workers, ruling that those who don’t join unions can’t be forced to pay fees to fund collective bargaining. It’s only a matter of time before they issue a similar ruling covering private-sector workers, which will make all of the United States a right-to-work state.
So is the fate of unions sealed? In a way, the Trump presidency might be doing them a favor. He ran for president saying he would help “the forgotten men and women” who used to work in secure manufacturing jobs with good wages and good benefits. But what he never said was that those jobs were what they were because unions fought hard to make them so. The owners of coal mines and auto plants didn’t grant those wages and benefits out of the goodness of their hearts; they did it because the unions forced them to.
Under Trump, job growth continues to be strong (as it has been for almost a decade), but wages are almost flat, and people feel less and less power on the job. The basic argument unions make — that whether you have a job is only the beginning — has seldom been more clearly true. The result in Missouri shows that people can be persuaded. And the party that continues to do everything in its power to create more inequality, giving gigantic tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy while it assaults the rights of workers, might want to worry just a little about the possibility of a backlash.