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Voters In Missouri Reject Right-To-Work Law In Rare Win For Labor


OK, we're going to take a closer look now at that rare win for labor in Missouri. Here to talk more about the vote's implications is Jake Rosenfeld. He's an expert on organized labor who teaches at Washington University in St. Louis. Welcome.

JAKE ROSENFELD: Thanks for having me on.

CHANG: First, can you just start us off and explain very basically what exactly was on the ballot last night?

ROSENFELD: Sure. So last night was a proposition that would have granted workers in unionized workplaces the option to not pay any union dues despite the fact that unions are on the hook to pay for the cost of representation. So it was a so-called right-to-work measure.

CHANG: OK. So just so I understand, as a result of this vote, that means that private sector unions can force nonmembers to pay certain fees, which is the status quo already?



ROSENFELD: All yesterday's vote does is restore the status quo.

CHANG: OK. How strong are unions in Missouri?

ROSENFELD: Not strong at all. In fact, fewer than 1 in 10 workers in Missouri currently belongs to a union. And that's down by - from about 1 in 4 workers back in the early 1980s. And that's down from where it was at the union's heyday in the 1950s and 1960s.

CHANG: But unions clearly have a lot of political support in the state. Or, I mean, that's how this vote's being read. The law was decisively struck down by a 2-1 margin. What does a margin like that tell us?

ROSENFELD: I think it shows substantial and wide support for organized labor among non-union workers. So about four times as many people voted against this measure as there are union members in the entire state of Missouri. And that right there is, I think, a pretty stunning victory for organized labor going forward.

CHANG: And why do you think so many non-union members helped vote down this law? Because, I mean, theoretically, they would stand to benefit from this law because this law would make it so you can't be forced to pay dues if you're not a member of the union.

ROSENFELD: So I think it's a great question. I think that organized labor, throughout the campaign, was able to convince non-union workers that right-to-work really hurts all workers, union and non-union, alike.

CHANG: How so? What was the logic?

ROSENFELD: I think the logic was an argument that as unions decline, so, too, do wages and working conditions for workers, union and non-union alike. And there's good evidence to back that up - that unions are kind of pacesetters out there, establishing wage levels and working conditions that union and non-union employers come to adopt.

CHANG: I want to put last night's vote into context because zooming out, the Supreme Court in June ruled that government workers who choose not to join unions do not have to help pay for collective bargaining. That decision was seen as a huge blow to labor at a time when union membership is shrinking.

So what does this vote, which seems to spell a huge victory for labor, mean about the overall strength of unions in this country? Or is it - is there a risk of reading too much into last night's vote?

ROSENFELD: Yeah. I think that's a great question. I think what this victory means, and we can kind of safely assume, is that unions have really seen encouraging signs of late that they're gaining popular support. Now that's especially true among younger Americans. But they face setback after setback in the courts and in state legislatures. So you know, you have to balance the two.

I think the broader story here is still one of unions in a very precarious place, but this was a victory that should - you know, is a real shot in the arm.

CHANG: Jake Rosenfeld is a sociology professor at Washington University in St. Louis. Thanks for your time.

ROSENFELD: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.