Labor's Astonishing Missouri Win — and the Opening It Portends

Labor's Astonishing Missouri Win — and the Opening It Portends

Ohio’s razor-thin vote for an open House seat got most of the headlines, but the bigger story was the defeat of a right-to-work ballot proposition in supposedly right-wing Missouri.

The bill to make Missouri America’s 28th state with a “right to work” law was passed by the legislature in 2017 and signed by then–Republican Governor Eric Greitens. But the labor movement qualified a ballot initiative overturning the measure, and it passed by a margin of 2 to 1, including in very conservative parts of a state carried overwhelmingly by Trump.

The “right to work” option was added to labor law by the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. Passed by the Republican 80th Congress over President Truman’s veto (he denounced it as a “slave labor act”), Taft-Hartley allows states to pass laws permitting workers to opt out of paying union dues even when a majority of workers sign union cards.

The name “right to work” was always a fraud. Even in states without such laws, anybody can take a job at a unionized facility. Workers merely have to join, or if they don’t want to join, to pay dues after they are hired.

“Right to work” makes it much harder to organize in such states. Until the last few decades, these measures were largely confined to the anti-union South and Mountain West. Lately, they have been enacted in Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin. In the past decade, they've been beaten with ballot initiatives in California and Ohio.

The Missouri vote not only extends and intensifies that success in a supposedly far more conservative state. It shows the latent appeal of pocketbook issues and trade unionism even in Trump country. It shows that the labor movement may be down, but it is far from out.

In Missouri, just 8.7 percent of workers are members of unions. But most working families know someone with a union job and they know the difference a union can make.

The right to have a union signals concern for the forgotten working class. By trying to crush labor, Missouri Republicans signaled not individual rights—the usual pitch for the misnamed “right to work” law—but their contempt for working people, who got the message.

The Missouri outcome also bodes well for the re-election of Senator Claire McCaskill, one of the supposedly endangered Democrats up this fall. More importantly, it signals the resurgence of the labor movement—and reminds Democrats that progressive economics are the indispensable ingredient for success on the beaten-down American heartland.