How Labor Won The Right-To-Work Fight In Missouri

It turns out unions run a fearsome ground game when they need to.
Tommy Martino / Reuters

Missouri voters resoundingly rejected the state’s new right-to-work statute by referendum Tuesday night, delivering a stinging rebuke to the GOP legislature that recently tried to implement the law. The vote on Proposition A wasn’t even close: The “no” crowd defeated the “yes” crowd by a 2-to-1 margin.

So how did unions pull off such a lopsided win in a red state dominated by GOP politics?

For starters, the pro-union side appears to have outspent the anti-union side.

With a rare opportunity to kill a law that would reduce union membership in the state, the labor-backed group We Are Missouri poured over $15 million into the campaign. The two largest groups on the other side of the issue, Freedom to Work and Missourians for Freedom to Work, spent a combined $3.2 million, according to the Missouri Ethics Commission.

But that was only one part of the story. A ballot measure like Proposition A plays to one of organized labor’s main strengths: ground game. And by most accounts, unions ran a relentless one.

Erin Schrimpf, a spokeswoman for We Are Missouri, which spearheaded the “no” campaign, shared some data on the group’s voter outreach. By election day, more than 2,000 volunteers had worked for the campaign, many of them union members. They knocked on over 800,000 doors and made nearly a million phone calls urging people to vote no on the proposition.

According to Schrimpf, the outreach probably played a role in the higher-than-expected turnout for an August primary.

“We would attribute a lot of that to how much energy we had and our supporters had,” she said. “Turnout being up definitely played to our advantage. We thought it was a pretty resounding message because the margin was better than expected.”

One voter in St. Louis told HuffPost that he was contacted about eight times by the “no” campaign either by telephone or mailer in recent weeks. If there was a strong argument in favor of the right-to-work law, he never heard it: The “yes” side didn’t contact him once.

That imbalance probably has a lot to do with the advocacy behind right-to-work laws. These laws give workers who are covered by a union contract the option to not pay any union fees, while still enjoying the union’s protections. They make it harder for unions to retain members, thereby hurting unions’ finances and, by extension, the power of the Democratic Party. The laws are now on the books in 27 states. Missouri would have been the 28th.

The loudest proponents of the laws tend to be out-of-state conservative groups like the National Right To Work Foundation, which have plenty of pull with state legislators, but not as much with regular voters.

Missouri Republicans, who have majorities in both chambers of the statehouse, passed their right-to-work law early last year. It was subsequently signed by then-Gov. Eric Greitens, also a Republican. And that’s exactly how these laws have been getting passed recently, in places like Wisconsin, Michigan and West Virginia ― states in which Republicans enjoy full control and can shut union members out of fast-moving deliberations.

Of course, a referendum is a completely different animal, and organized labor obviously had enthusiasm on its side. Those who are passionately against right-to-work laws ― that is, union leaders and activists ― canvassed on behalf of the “no” campaign, while those in favor of the laws ― that is, fellows at anti-labor groups like the Competitive Enterprise Institute ― apparently didn’t hit the doors as hard.

As state legislatures have eagerly taken up right-to-work laws in recent years, unions have been trying to point out that voters don’t exactly seem to be clamoring for them. At least when it comes to Missouri, it’s hard to argue with that.

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