Missouri union supporters have reason to be upbeat about the prospect of repealing a state law banning mandatory union dues: History is on their side.
More than 90 percent of the time, when Missouri voters have been asked to turn their thumbs up or down on a measure passed by lawmakers, they don’t agree with the politicians.
It’s been more than three decades since a law was suspended due to a referendum, but that’s what happened to “right-to-work.” Missouri unions have lost members since then, but they were still able to gather enough signatures to stall the law.
Based on the historical passion about the issue and available campaign finance data, it seems the ideological battle over “right-to-work” will continue to be fought in Missouri over the next year.
Challenging the dues ban
Union petitioners say they submitted more than 300,000 petitions calling for a vote on the issue to Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft’s office, forcing the law to be suspended until a public election.
The law forbade unions from requiring workers to join or pay dues, though a grandfather clause was included to exempt labor agreements on the books as of Aug. 28, when the law was intended to take effect.
Ashcroft’s office wanted signatures in each of Missouri’s eight congressional districts to be vetted by the first of November ahead of a statewide review.
“The process is moving forward smoothly, and we continue to expect a final result this month,” spokeswoman Maura Browning said in an email.
Most of the signatures collected and submitted in Greene County were given the OK.
County Clerk Shane Schoeller said 14,524 valid signatures were collected here, along with 4,909 that were invalid.
Anti-“right-to-work” petitioners were helped by the speed with which Jefferson City Republicans sent the bill to Gov. Eric Greitens, who signed it Feb. 6.
This effectively gave petitioners several additional months to gather signatures they wouldn’t have had if the law was signed in May or late June, when Greitens signed numerous other bills.
It’s possible that Republicans in Jefferson City could throw a wrench in union plans by changing the timing of the election from November to August, when turnout tends to be lower and more conservative — and when the GOP will pick their candidate to challenge Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill.
Big trucks and memory lane
Missourians have been asked hundreds of times whether to change state law in one way or another. Sometimes, state lawmakers pass a bill to put a question before voters. Other times, activists try to collect signatures to push a particular issue.
And occasionally, there’s overlap.
On 26 occasions, Missouri voters have considered a statutory amendment after enough signatures were collected to challenge a law passed by the Missouri General Assembly, according to information provided by Ashcroft’s office.
Only twice have Missouri voters agreed to support the laws passed by their legislators.
In 1920, Missourians voted in favor of a referendum petition to enforce U.S. Prohibition laws against alcohol. In 1926, they backed a workers’ compensation law.
Fourteen repeal votes appeared on the ballot in 1922. In the second half of the 20th century, referendum petitions only reached voters four times.
The most recent decision was the “big trucks” vote of 1982.
In 1981, Missouri legislators passed a law increasing the maximum allowable weights and lengths of trucks on state highways, the Associated Press reported then. Supporters said using bigger trucks made more economic sense, but opponents claimed the heftier vehicles would tear up the pavement and endanger other motorists.
Unions aren’t what they used to be
Fast-forward to the present day: Missouri’s “right-to-work” law is in limbo until November 2018, and battles rage on about whether the law is “good” or “bad,” whether it drives people away from unions and whether it has any effect on the economy.
Union membership has steadily declined for decades, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In a January news release, the bureau estimated there were 14.6 million American union workers in 2016, for a membership rate of 10.7 percent. That’s down from 1983 (the first year similar data was available), where one of every five workers was in a union.
Missouri seems to buck the trend in recent years. In 2016, the Show-Me State counted 262,000 union members, with an additional 28,000 employees covered by a labor organization, according to the labor statistics bureau.
While down from pre-recession levels, union membership totals and the percentage of employees represented by labor organizations in Missouri is up since 2012.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not break out union membership data for local areas like Springfield or Greene County due to concerns about sample size and accuracy, an economist told the News-Leader.
However, the U.S. Department of Labor collects annual reports from unions and publishes that data on its website. This data includes membership, assets, liabilities and spending for 22 active unions with Springfield addresses.
Excluding regional organizations, the largest Springfield labor organization is the Teamsters Local #245, which said in a recent report it had 2,238 members. Other sizable branches represent carpenters, communications workers, electricians, mail carriers, plumbers and metalworkers.
Big money issue
Despite the diminished stature of unions in the state, the “right-to-work” issue has attracted plenty of money, much of which is documented in filings with the Missouri Ethics Commission.
A political action committee called Preserve Middle Class America, connected to a Springfield union leader, was a vehicle for unions to spend more than $300,000 on petition-gathering efforts and related legal expenses.
Another PAC, We Are Missouri, has gathered at least $1.6 million, including large checks from organizations and numerous $8 donations from individuals. In turn, We Are Missouri has been paying for help from FieldWorks, a Washington, D.C. organization that specializes in gathering signatures.
FieldWorks also has been enlisted by CLEAN Missouri (a union-backed effort trying to pass sweeping ethics reform) and New Approach Missouri (a group trying to legalize medical marijuana). All told, FieldWorks has received almost $2 million this year to work in the world of Missouri politics.
The law’s supporters aren’t about to turn tail.
One PAC set up to defend “right-to-work” is Missourians for Worker Freedom, which has received $500,000 and enlisted the services of Jeff Roe, a prominent conservative consultant, and the law firm of Todd Graves, chairman of the Missouri Republican Party.
Most of that funding has come from A New Missouri, a nonprofit run by Greitens’ campaign aides that does not and is not required to disclose its donors. The governor has likened such untraceable political financing (also known as “dark money”) to the practice of voting by secret ballot.
Another group backing the law, the Liberty Alliance, also has been paying the firms of Roe and Graves hundreds of thousands of dollars. Liberty Alliance’s funding includes large donations from prominent Joplin megadonor David Humphreys, the Herzog family of St. Joseph, and Wisconsin businessman Richard Uihlein.
Liberty Alliance also made waves when its pro-“right-to-work” brochures were passed out by armed men outside the Buchanan County Courthouse in August, the St. Joseph News-Press reported.
Missouri’s unions will know this month whether enough people signed their petitions to put the measure before voters in 2018.