On the Trail: When right to work comes, can Missouri's unions adapt?

Jan 15, 2017

When it comes to “right to work,” there’s widespread disagreement about the policy’s potential effects on Missouri’s economy. But there’s no question that Missouri’s unions are about to experience seismic change.

Right to work is a form of shorthand that proponents use to describe laws that bar employers and unions from requiring workers to pay dues as a condition of employment. Missouri lawmakers are expected to pass right to work legislation shortly, which Gov. Eric Greitens plans to sign.

Depending on when New Hampshire enacts right to work, Missouri will either be the 28th or 29th state to adopt the policy. How right to work affects unions varies. It often depends how aggressive organized labor is about convincing membership to pay its dues.

Jake Rosenfeld, a sociology professor at Washington University, is the author of What Unions No Longer Do. I sat down with Rosenfeld last week to talk about the practical implications of right to work – and why the policy may not be a death knell to organized labor in Missouri. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.

St. Louis Public Radio: When there’s no longer a requirement to pay dues, I imagine, in some cases, people are not going to pay – and unions are going to have less money. What'st he practical impact when that happens?

Rosenfeld: That’s a great question – actually a complicated question. First, it’s important to note that right to work laws hurt unions. If they didn’t, there wouldn’t be such strong efforts by union opponents to pass these laws. That said, in right to work contexts, we know that the vast majority of covered workers voluntarily pay union dues.

Washington University sociology professor Jake Rosenfeld
Credit Courtesy of Washington University

It’s clear that some unions do a lot better at motivating their covered members to pay their dues than in other cases. Given the political head winds right now, every union out there facing the threat of a right to work law should be sending staff and calling up those unions that do a good job of getting their members motivated and excited to contribute to the organization that provides their representation.

St. Louis Public Radio: If a union has less money, does that mean when they go to negotiate a new contract, they’re going to have less leverage to get better wages? Or do the two have nothing to do with each other?

Rosenfeld: It’s possible that they’re related. We know that in right to work contexts, unions just have to spend a lot more time and resources on membership services: on convincing members day in and day out that the union is important; that the union is there for a reason; and that the workers should therefore contribute to union dues. And that forestalls and reduces the amount of time and effort unions can do on other things, including political matters – which is obviously a key motivation for a lot of this legislation.

St. Louis Public Radio: What should people in labor unions expect to happen when this becomes law of the land? Will their lives change very much? Will their every day work change very much? Or is it less significant than being advertised?

Rosenfeld: This has become a highly charged, symbolic issue in which union opponents and proponents have invested a lot of time and resources. The research doesn’t show overwhelming results from the passage of right to work legislation. (Right-to-work laws are) often a lagging indicator of already weakened union power. And that’s certainly what we see here in Missouri and certainly what we see in other states that have passed these types of laws recently.

So for your average worker, things might not change. For your average union, resources will be constrained. But right to work will prove to be the death knell of organized labor only if unions believe it to be so. There’s no reason unions cannot remain strong in a right-to-work state. They face a steeper challenge, but the possibility is there.

Organized labor's membership has declined in Missouri over the past decade.
Credit File photo by Marshall Griffin | St. Louis Public Radio

St. Louis Public Radio: Why do businesses and business groups like right to work and want to see it passed? What benefit does it have to the manager/business side of the equation?

Rosenfeld: There’s a widespread belief that right to work hurts unions, prevents unions from spending money on new organizing. So for your average non-union business, the threat of unionization is diminished. It often provides a wedge where in currently unionized businesses, the employers can step up anti-union campaigns and try to convince workers not to contribute to the unions – which also further weakens existing unions.

St. Louis Public Radio: There are instances in states with right to work where unions have done well or thrived. You told my colleague Jo Mannies that unions in Nevada are gaining power because, I assume, they’ve been aggressive at making sure they matter to the membership. Is that an example where right to work didn’t really end up hurting unions? And are there cases where right to work did hurt union and unionization efforts.

Rosenfeld: One of the bright spots for organized labor and certainly for the Democratic Party coming out of the 2016 elections was Nevada. A lot of people have pointed to the strong unions in that state in terms of providing the political resources, organizational and financial, to get out the vote – to the surprise of a lot of people with strong Democratic victories. Nevada is a right-to-work state. Unions there have done a very good job at convincing covered members to pay union dues. Other unions out there should be looking to Nevada to find out what they’re doing right.

There are other instances. Certainly if you look at how the laws were structured in Wisconsin, the passage of right to work has coincided with pretty steep declines in membership. That was a peculiar case: Not only was right to work passed, but also unions were also really hamstrung in what they could bargain over. So workers really had little incentive to pay union dues given that traditional union activities were cut off by the legislation.

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics. 

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum