People across the country will be paying close attention to the election results in Missouri next Tuesday when the corporations’ latest attempt to crush union membership will be played out at the polls.
I’m referring to the misleadingly worded “right to work” issue, which big business wants enacted into law. The anti-labor proposal appears as Proposition A on the ballot Aug. 7.
The outcome of the vote could be viewed as a barometer on the status of the labor movement in the face of falling membership and unfavorable court decisions.
The issue confuses some people. My neighbor asked me about it a few days ago, and I tried to explain it to him.
I knew very little about unions when I first went to work for the Associated Press in St. Louis in 1972. After my first day on the job, at the end of my shift, I was walked back to my car by a new colleague who explained to me the benefits of union membership.
The dues members paid contributed to negotiating with management over issues like wages, overtime, working conditions, health insurance and pensions. Because of the union, all the workers had a contract under which, for example, you got paid a little bit more per hour if you worked nights.
I agreed to join the union and signed the dues check-off card the next day. Membership was voluntary. It was considered “an open shop.” Because the AP had offices in all 50 states, and some of those states had “right to work” laws, union membership in what was known as the Wire Service Guild had to be voluntary.
What’s wrong with that? The problem is that the benefits obtained through the negotiations went to everyone, including those who didn’t pay for them. There was always an awareness, a division, that there were “free riders” in the office taking advantage of the sacrifices made by others. And the fact that not everyone belonged made the union weaker.
That’s why the corporations want “right to work.” It weakens the workers’ bargaining power. And it’s one of the reasons why average wages in “right to work” states are lower than in those states where unions have more bargaining power.
In 1977, I went to work for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch where membership in The Newspaper Guild was required. It was a closed shop. Many years before, the employees voted to form a bargaining unit. And in an agreement with the Pulitzer management, all of the workers covered by the contract were in the union and paid the dues that went towards bargaining for pay, hours and job protection. You could not be fired willy-nilly by some sour ball on the city desk.
A few may have resented the requirement to join the union, but they were happy when the Guild fought for their benefits. This “closed shop” arrangement would be outlawed if “right to work” is approved.
A previous generation of Missouri voters defeated a “right to work” law on Nov. 7, 1978, by a vote of 929,705 “no” to 628,041 “yes.”
That issue came to a vote because a business-sponsored group paid for the circulation of petitions to put the proposition on the ballot. For years, the Legislature refused to pass “right to work,” but when corporations finally obtained control of the General Assembly, they managed to get the bill through the House and Senate. Some governors refused to sign it into law.
Finally, along came Republican Eric Greitens, who was elected with the help of millions of dollars in dark money, the source of which has never been identified. Did it come from people who wanted “right to work” signed into law? We don’t know, but when the Legislature again adopted the bill, Greitens was there to sign it. But it won’t become law if enough people vote “no” on Tuesday.
The same arguments that were waged against “right to work” 40 years ago are being made today. But the simplest one for me is that it would allow someone to enjoy the benefits of union membership without having to pay for them. It’s not fair.