FRANKLIN COUNTY, Mo. — Scott Long, a refrigeration mechanic, is a supporter of President Trump. But he joined with a large majority of voters in this red state this week to reject “right-to-work” legislation that would have sharply constrained union organizing.
The 43-year-old union member said unions have played an indispensable role in his life. “Our benefits are just awesome. Our health care is top of the line. I have a pension, so I’m going to be set when I retire, we get a 401(k), my medical and dental and vision plans are awesome,” he said. “If I get laid off, they look for another job for me, and you can’t really ask for better, in my eyes.”
The landslide vote in Missouri to defeat the right-to-work legislation, a state Republican push that became law last year, was celebrated this week by liberals and union leaders as a high point for organized labor. But it also shined a light on a group that gained significant attention in the 2016 presidential campaign: pro-union, pro-Trump voters.
The margin defeating the legislation — 67 percent to 33 percent — came in a state where Trump commanded nearly a 20-point lead in 2016, and Republicans control the governor’s office, the state legislature, one U.S. Senate seat and six U.S. House seats. Even some of the most conservative counties rejected the measure.
As president, Trump has shown hostility toward organized labor, and his Republican allies in Missouri were behind the right-to-work legislation. But pro-union, pro-Trump voters say that even if they consider unions crucial, they see many other reasons to back Trump.
“I like what Trump is doing for the country, though I don’t agree on all of his policies,” Long said. “If you want to be a citizen, you shouldn’t just walk across the southern California border. . . . I like how Trump wants to close the border down.”
Dennis Brinkler, a union electrician who voted against the legislation, also cited immigration as a reason he’s supporting Trump and state Attorney General Josh Hawley, an anti-union Republican who is challenging Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) in November.
“I vote my faith and morals, number one; my country and the Constitution second; and then for my union third,” said Brinkler, 65. “Without the Constitution, there are no labor unions. Without my country, the union means nothing, because we’d have no work.”
Democrats said the vote is an example of the tide finally turning in their favor. “Trump and his Republican friends do not represent what working people want or need,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) said on Twitter.
But some labor leaders say support for the measure was less about politics and more about a sense that corporate leaders shouldn’t be reaping all the benefits of a prosperous economy.
“This was not about Democrat vs. Republicans,” said Pat White, president of the St. Louis Labor Council, which organized to defeat the measure. “This is about workers vs. CEOs.”
White and other union officials pointed to a range of reasons their members, even as they embraced organized labor, may reject Democrats at the polls — including the party’s support of free trade policies, gun policy, position on immigration, and protests of police shootings of unarmed black men.
“Some of the guys I represent in their 50s, it’s hard for them to grasp shutting down a highway because of an incident that may have happened with the police, and often that’s people on our side of the party,” White said, referring to protests in Ferguson, Mo., after the Michael Brown was killed by a police officer four years ago. “That’s hard for a lot of the old white guys to grasp.”
In the 2016 presidential election, with his appeals to the nation’s “forgotten men and women,” Trump made a surprising impact on union voters. He won 42 percent of union households compared to Democratic rival Hillary Clinton’s 51 percent, the best showing for a Republican since Ronald Reagan.
In February 2017, state Republicans had approved the right-to-work legislation , which would have allowed employees represented by unions not to pay union fees. But under Missouri law, unions and their allies successfully petitioned to halt its enforcement pending the results of a referendum.
Labor officials said they have seen attitudes toward unions improve as the economy has grown stronger. After the Great Recession, labor unions’ public popularity hit their lowest point in several decades, with Gallup polling showing about as many people approving as disapproving of them.
But with an extremely strong job market, voters appear less fearful about standing up to corporate owners. Unions’ favorability ratings rose to 61 percent approving with 31 percent disapproving in 2017, according to Gallup, their highest marks since before the recession.
“People are seeing that their wages are not increasing even though the companies are making more money, so they’re turning to the union for answers,” said John Smreker, a union worker with Ironworkers 396 near St. Louis. “Anti-union sentiment is way down.”
Some union leaders view their landslide victory as a signal that voters are waking up to the ways conservative policy favors businesses owners and investors over workers.
“Absolutely, we’ve seen a shift,” Mike Louis, president of Missouri’s AFL-CIO, said in an interview in his office as staff members packed up signs from the months-long campaign. “We’re in a position to take back some seats, especially looking at districts where over 70 percent voted ‘no.’ ”
AFL-CIO knocked on more than 800,000 doors, made close to 1 million phone calls, and recruited more than 1,000 volunteers — all of which surpassed their efforts during the 2016 presidential campaign, said a spokeswoman for the union. Union organizers said they received key help from church leaders in Missouri’s black and white communities.
But conservatives are skeptical, arguing that the best evidence for unions’ popularity comes in their ever-diminishing membership. Union membership nationwide has fallen markedly from the 1970s, with the percentage of American workers in a union falling from about one quarter in the 1970s to less than 11 percent in 2017, according to survey data.
The Missouri vote also follows a national-level disaster for labor groups. The Supreme Court’s Janus ruling in June effectively ushered in a right-to-work situation for public-sector unions nationwide, undercutting an arrangement in which they could charge dues for negotiating but not for politics.
And other Republican lawmakers have rebounded from voters rejecting their union policy. In 2011, voters roundly defeated a right-to-work proposal put on a ballot in Ohio. Three years later, Gov. John Kasich (R), a supporter of the measure, won reelection by a nearly 2-to-1 margin.