The decimation of organized labor in Missouri since the last time “right to work” was on the ballot makes the defeat of Proposition A all the more surprising—and, perhaps, important. It is one thing to vote down an anti-union measure when a sizable fraction of the electorate belongs to or is closely related to someone in a union. It is another thing altogether to do so when few workers have any direct or indirect experience with organized labor. In the end, four times as many Missourians voted against the measure as there are union members in the entire state. Opposition to the measure crossed party lines as well. Early calculations suggest as many as half of the Republican voters rejected Proposition A.
The hundreds of thousands of non-union voters who voted against Proposition A provide the real story of labor’s large win in Missouri. Contrary to conventional wisdom, unions are increasingly popular, surprisingly so given all the negative press and political hits they have taken over recent years. According to a 2017 Gallup poll, more than 60 percent of U.S. adults approve of labor unions. Far more Americans say unions should have more influence in this country rather than less. Younger Americans, in particular, approve of what unions do: Two-thirds of those aged 18 to 34 support them.
A recent survey by a team of researchers at MIT provides union leaders and union supporters even more grounds for optimism. The researchers asked non-union, non-managerial workers whether they would support a unionization drive at their workplace. Half of the respondents replied yes, revealing a huge pent-up demand for workplace representation.
Yet the exception to this growing body of encouraging public opinion on unions had been the data on “right to work.” Polls consistently find majority support for these measures. Union opponents’ effective branding of the issue likely explains much of its popularity. If you’re unfamiliar with unions and what they do, why wouldn’t you support your so-called “right to work”?
What the win in Missouri has taught the broader labor movement is that a sustained, well-financed campaign can educate a largely non-union electorate about “right to work” laws, successfully, and truthfully, recasting them as anti-worker. Labor’s victory in the state also provides the wider movement with more evidence that, despite a series of setbacks in the courts and state legislatures, the public stands with it on key issues.
That public support is needed now more than ever. While the defeat of Proposition A is rightly being celebrated among union supporters, the win is largely symbolic. All it does is restore the status quo to collective bargaining in the state, a status quo that has been anything but friendly to unions over recent decades.
There is also the strong possibility that Missouri Republicans re-up in the law in a way that voters can’t overturn. Polls do consistently show support for unions and labor’s political goals. The problem though is that outside of a specific anti-union law, there’s very little evidence that many voters are activated by these issues, especially when compared to the appeal of racism and religion. When Ohio voters overturned its right to work law in 2011, I was strongly hopeful that John Kasich would pay the political price with an electoral defeat. By the time he came up for election again in 2014, his support for that was long-forgotten and he was easily reelected. And while some voters do vote consistently based on appeals to the working-class, it’s not even close to the same consistency as voters who are anti-abortion vote. Moreover, given that no doubt many anti-abortion voters in Missouri and Ohio also voted to support unionization, when those two issues clash over the choice of a candidate, hatred of abortion wins out much more often. So this public support is important, but it really takes much more to rebuild union power, a point which by no means contradicts what Rosenfeld is arguing.