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Missourians See 'Right-to-Work' for What It Is: An Assault on Workers

Such measures jeopardize unions' ability to give workers a meaningful voice in the workplace

no prop a sign

"By rejecting Proposition A so resoundingly, Missourians have struck a much needed blow for working people." (Photo: No On Prop A/Twitter)

By a two-to-one margin, Missouri voters voted down a so-called “right-to-work” (RTW) law on Tuesday. This is great news for working Missourians and the unions that represent them, as well as anyone whose living depends on the money Missourians spend in their local economy.

Despite the name, RTW laws do not confer the right to employment on anyone; nor do they make it so you can’t be required to join a union—the law already says that no one can be made to join a union as a condition of employment.

Instead, RTW laws prevent unions from charging nonmembers their fair share for the services unions are required to provide—services like bargaining for higher wages and representing workers when they have grievances against their employer.

The law says that unions must represent everyone in a bargaining unit, whether or not they are union members. RTW laws undermine unions’ finances by preventing them from requiring that all of the workers who benefit from this representation pay their fair share of the cost.

By exposing unions to this “free rider” problem—and thereby kneecapping their ability to effectively finance their operations—RTW laws jeopardize unions’ ability to give workers a meaningful voice in the workplace.

Across the country, large sums of money have been spent backing RTW bills, with corporate lobbyists claiming that RTW will create jobs and boosts wages by attracting companies to the state.

Almost all of Missouri’s neighbors have gone RTW, and while there has been no corresponding increase in business investment or employment, unions are weaker and wages are lower, which is exactly what RTW proponents hope to achieve.

Only 5.2 percent of private sector workers in RTW states are union members or are covered by a union contract, compared with 10.2 percent in non-RTW states. Based on the experience of its neighbors, we would expect that 60,000 fewer Missourians would be covered by a union contract if RTW had passed.

Given that RTW hurts unions, it’s not surprising that wages are lower in RTW states. After accounting for cost of living, demographics, industry and workers’ education and experience, workers in RTW states earn 3.1 percent less than their non-RTW peers.

This is, of course, the whole point of RTW—to weaken unions and lower wages for working people. And it’s not just union members who are hurt; unions raise wages for working people across the board by setting a standard that nonunion employers must meet to attract and retain qualified workers. When unions decline, all working people lose.

For the past four decades, the wages of typical workers have been all but stagnant, while the gains of a growing economy have gone almost entirely to the top few percent. This growing inequality is not an accident.

It is the result of a series of intentional policy decisions—from RTW and laws like Wisconsin’s Act 10 that weaken unions and undercut collective bargaining, to the eroding value of the minimum wage and the overtime threshold—designed to dilute workers’ power in the labor market and strengthen the hand of businesses and corporations.

Thankfully, for the working people of Missouri, voters saw through the corporate propaganda and rejected this assault on workers. When given the choice, voters consistently choose to support and empower working people.

That’s why RTW failed in Missouri, why striking teachers in West Virginia and Oklahoma found broad support and why everything from minimum wage increases to paid sick leave and fair scheduling laws are winning at the ballot box.

Progressive lawmakers should not shy away from these issues. Working people and the labor movement have long been a source of progressive political power, and we should look for ways to rebuild that power.

By rejecting Proposition A so resoundingly, Missourians have struck a much needed blow for working people. Perhaps, after a decades-long assault that culminated in the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v. AFSCME, Tuesday’s vote will be the turning of the tides. Working people have been kept down for far too long.

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Heidi Shierholz

Heidi Shierholz

Heidi Shierholz leads the Economic Policy Institutes’ Perkins Project on Worker Rights and Wages, a policy response team that tracks the Trump administration’s wage and employment policies. She also heads EPI’s efforts to advance a worker-centered policy agenda.

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