While the media lemmings dutifully followed President Trump into a House district in Ohio, where a special election on Tuesday decided who would occupy a single seat in Congress for just a few weeks (the same candidates will fight it out for a full term in November), something of genuine consequence was going down a few hours west in Missouri. American labor, all but left for dead after a decade-long run of legal and legislative beat-downs, threw everything it had into a long-shot effort to overturn yet another “right to work” law in yet another Midwestern state — and came up with its most startling political victory in decades.
Voters in Missouri, a deep-red state that’s anything but a “labor stronghold,” not only vetoed the GOP’s union-busting, wage-slashing law, they did it by a mind-bending two-to-one margin. In the process, they changed the narrative of labor’s long slide toward irrelevance. As state AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Jacob Hummel, a Democratic state senator from St. Louis, tells Rolling Stone, “The corporations and Chambers of Commerce have the money. They don’t have the people.”
This was the first time since 2011 that labor-smashing legislation made it onto any state’s ballot, and the results then, in Ohio, were strikingly similar, with 62 percent of voters rejecting a “right to work” law aimed at public employees. (In June, the Supreme Court overturned those voters’ will, along with 40 years of precedents, to basically impose the same law on the entire country in Janus v. AFSCME.) After Ohio, the Koch brothers and U.S. Chamber of Commerce wised up, ramming “right to work” laws through Republican legislatures in labor’s heartland — Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, West Virginia, Kentucky — often in ways designed to forestall a popular vote.
When Missouri Republicans celebrated their new supermajorities in the state legislature by passing “right to work” in January 2017, it also looked like a done deal. The state allows voters to overturn laws by popular referendum, but the bar is set so high that there hadn’t been one since 1982. In a state where less than 9 percent of the workforce is unionized — nowhere near the rates in Michigan or Wisconsin or Ohio, and below the national average — the chances of undoing “right to work” were slim to none. “We needed almost 110,000 signatures to get it on the ballot,” Hummel says — the equivalent of five percent of 2016 turnout in six of the state’s eight House districts. “We decided to go after them in the entire state, and we ended up with 310,000, almost three times as many as we needed. It was amazing. One of my favorite stories is how a group of electricians set up on a river, and they would wade out when floaters came along to get them to sign the petition.”
The vote was now set for November’s general election, when the presence on the ballot of Sen. Claire McCaskill, pretty much the Last Democrat Standing in Missouri, would help its chances by boosting turnout and attracting national money and attention. But in May, Republican lawmakers threw a haymaker at the newly revved-up labor organizers: They moved the date of the initiative up to the August 7th primary, when Democrats would have no major statewide contests on the ballot and Republicans, who had a competitive race for the right to challenge McCaskill, would surely outnumber them at the polls. Instead of five months to organize and rally the troops, the unions now had half the time they’d expected.
That was dirty politics, but it was also perfectly in keeping with the deceit and dishonesty corporations have long used to pass and promote “right to work.” The name itself is Orwellian — the invention of a white-supremacist Texan who agitated successfully for such laws across the South and West after the labor-squelching Taft-Hartley Act made them possible in 1947. What these laws actually do is eat away at workers’ wages and organizing rights by “freeing” employees of union shops to pay no dues, even though the unions are still required by law to represent them in collective bargaining. That puts a financial squeeze on unions — and ultimately weakens their power to spend money on elections. (After the Janus decision, Trump gave away the game in a triumphant tweet: “Big loss for the coffers of the Democrats!” he crowed. It’s no accident that two of the most recent “right to work” states, Michigan and Wisconsin, landed in Trump’s camp in 2016 and threw the election to him.)
The deception does not stop there: These laws are always pitched as measures that will attract more companies and jobs into a state. That was the siren song in Missouri as well. “Right now Missouri is missing out on opportunities for new jobs and new investments from companies that will only relocated in right-to-work states,” Ray McCarty, president and CEO of Associated Industries of Missouri, told CBS News.
“These laws are sold with the same rationale used to keep minimum wages down,” Heidi Shierholz, policy director at the Economic Policy Institute, tells Rolling Stone. “The corporations and lawmakers say, ‘These institutions are all hamstringing our economy. If we unwind these things, we’re going to unleash growth. Everyone will be better off.’” What happens instead, as EPI and others have exhaustively documented, is the exact opposite: Wages drop, unions are starved and “you actually reduce the economic activity in the state,” says Shierholz. “When you have middle-class people making less money, they’re paying less taxes, and they’re spending less. Higher unionization helps the entire fiscal situation in a state.”
When labor-killing laws are relegated to legislative debates in state capitals, it’s harder to make that case to citizens. After all, “right to work” and the “freedoms” it promises sound dandy on the surface. But as with minimum-wage laws, which voters almost always vote to hike when they have a chance, it’s fairly easy to discredit the buzzwords and bullshit when “right to work” actually comes up for a popular vote.
In one of the savviest moves of the “no” campaign in Missouri, actor and Missouri native John Goodman — first on a radio ad aired across the state, and then with a robo-call on Election Day — made plain the truth with blunt effectiveness. “The name’s deceiving: the bill will not give you the right to work. Instead, it gives big business and out-of-state corporations the right to pay you less than they do now … It’s being sold as a way to help Missouri workers,” Goodman continued, “but look a little deeper, and you’ll see it’s all about corporate greed.”
Lo and behold, voters did see that — 67.5 percent of them, in fact. What happened in Missouri on Tuesday, while nobody else was looking, was the kind of bracing rebuke to America’s hostile corporate takeover that’s been vanishingly rare in recent years. On Tuesday morning, 28 states had “right to work” laws. Today it’s down to 27. More important, workers across the country now have a model for going on the offensive against the rising plutocracy, rather than watching helplessly while wages continue to stagnate and inequality continues to widen.
“We want to turn this into an uprising,” national AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Liz Schuler tells Rolling Stone. (She was taking a break late Tuesday night from a giddy victory party at the pipefitters’ union hall in Kansas City.) In several other states where voter initiatives are permitted, “right to work” can be overturned, beginning in 2020. In others, it’ll take a constitutional amendment to do the trick. It won’t be easy. But what happened in Missouri, in spite of all the stacked odds, belies the idea that it’s an impossible climb anywhere. The assholes have the money, as Hummel said, but they still don’t have the people.