Labor unions have had a discouraging series of setbacks in recent years. Membership has been declining, in part because fewer people work in manufacturing—traditionally a union stronghold—and partly because “right-to-work” laws are in place in 28 states now. These laws prohibit unions from collecting dues from workers who choose not to be members, depriving the unions of important funds that support their efforts and weakening their position with employers. Despite the sunny name, such laws have resulted in lower wages in the states that have adopted them, according to the AFL-CIO, which serves as an umbrella group for most U.S. unions.
But the failure of a ballot measure in Missouri this week shows that voters aren’t as enamored of “right-to-work” as Republicans seem to think. The prospective law would have prohibited private-sector unions from collecting mandatory fees from workers who choose not to become union members. It was rejected by voters by a margin of two-to-one.
The good news for labor was much needed in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision earlier this summer that public-sector unions, which represent more than 34 percent of those who work for local, state, and federal agencies (compared with only 6.5 percent of private-sector employees), are not allowed to collect mandatory fees from people who choose not to become members, but who do benefit from collective bargaining. The decision upends more than 40 years of precedent—although non-members were not required to pay for unions’ political efforts, they did contribute toward the costs of the collective bargaining process, because their interests were being represented in efforts to negotiate wages, benefits, and other employment conditions.
States including Wisconsin and Ohio have limited labor’s ability to negotiate for state workers recently, and the June Supreme Court decision is likely to eat into their membership numbers even more.
But despite the statutory problems, labor has actually been making some important progress on the ground. Tens of thousands of teachers walked off the job in conservative states this year to demand better wages and working conditions, graduate students and teaching assistants have joined the United Auto Workers union, Las Vegas workers went on strike at casinos, and 250,000 Teamsters authorized a UPS strike (but received concessions before it took place).
Missouri’s voters showed that when people understand the reality of the anti-union push for “right-to-work” laws, they show up at the ballot box to protect their workers.
“It shows how out of touch those institutions are,” Richard Trumka, president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O, told The New York Times. “How out of touch the Republican legislature in Missouri is, how out of touch the Supreme Court is.”