JEFFERSON CITY, MO — The steady march of new right-to-work laws in Republican-led states hit a wall in Missouri, where voters resoundingly rejected a measure that could have weakened union finances after national and local labor groups poured millions of dollars into the campaign against it.
Missouri's law against compulsory union fees was defeated Tuesday by a 2-to-1 margin, nearly a year after the measure adopted by the state's Republican governor and Legislature had been scheduled to take effect. It was put on hold after unions successfully petitioned to force a public referendum.
The election results effectively vetoed the Missouri measure and halted a string of stinging losses for organized labor. Since 2012, five other once historically strong union states had adopted right-to-work laws as Republicans gained strength in state capitols, raising the total to 27 states with such laws.
The Missouri referendum marked the first chance for voters to weigh in on union powers since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in late June that public sector employees cannot be compelled to pay fees to unions. Missouri's ballot measure essentially would have extended that to all private sector employees in the state.
"Working people made their voices heard at the ballot box today and overturned right to work. It's a truly historic moment," Missouri AFL-CIO President Mike Louis said.
Missouri voters had last rejected right to work in 1978, when national union membership was more than double its current rate of 10.7 percent.
Business groups and conservative interest groups pledged to try again to enact it in Missouri, potentially as soon as the 2019 legislative session.
"The defeat of Proposition A is merely a minor setback on the road to providing workers with the freedom they deserve," said Jeremy Cady, the Missouri director of Americans for Prosperity, which is part of the conservative Koch network.
At issue are so-called fair-share fees, which are less than full dues but are intended to cover unions' nonpolitical costs such as collective bargaining. Unions say it's fair for workers to pay the fees, because federal law requires them to represent even those employees who don't join. But supporters of right-to-work laws counter that people should have the right to accept a job without being required to pay a union.
Former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens signed a right-to-work bill in February 2017. It was supposed to take effect as law on Aug. 28. But before that could happen, union organizers submitted enough petition signatures to suspend its implementation pending a statewide referendum.
Right-to-work supporters had been banking on Greitens to help draw money and attention to their campaign. But Greitens resigned amid scandal on June 1 and disappeared from the public spotlight.
Unions powered an opposition effort that had spent more than $15 million as of late July, well over three times as much as various groups that support right-to-work. Advertisements generally focused on economics, with supporters claiming right-to-work would lead to more jobs and opponents claiming it would drive down wages.
Studies looking at the economic effects of right-to-work laws have found mixed and sometimes conflicting results.
The Washington-based Economic Policy Institute, which opposes right to work, found that wages in right-to-work states average 3.1 percent less than elsewhere after accounting for other workforce differences such as educational backgrounds, racial composition, the industrial makeup of employers and the cost of living.
But a case study focused on Oklahoma found different results. Economists Ozkan Eren of Louisiana State University and Serkan Ozbeklik of Claremont McKenna College in California used data from states with similar characteristics to analyze the effect of Oklahoma's 2001 right-to-work law. They found it resulted in a significant reduction in private sector unionization rates but had no short-term effect on either the total unemployment rate or average private sector wages.
Most right-to-work laws were enacted in the 1940s and 1950s. But Republicans have led a resurgence of such laws, starting in Indiana in 2012 and following in Michigan, Wisconsin, West Virginia and Kentucky.