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What does 'right to work' mean to you?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 2, 2013 - Missouri Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder has said that next year Show Me State voters will get a chance to decide whether to halt a long-standing policy that requires employees to pay union dues when they work at a company that has unions even if they don't become a union member.

Generally, businesses and political conservatives favor such measures, saying they provide workers with more freedom. Union leaders are opposed, fearing anything that could lessen union clout and influence. Twenty-four states have some form of the so-called "right-to-work" laws, but similar legislation has failed in the past in Missouri.

As the nation observes Labor Day and celebrates the contributions of American workers, the Beacon, through the Public Insight Network, sought to check public reaction to Kinder’s comments. The responses received expressed overwhelming opposition to any kind of right-to-work law. We present a sampling of the comments readers submitted, some of which have been edited for length or clarity. We welcome further discussion, especially from those who support right-to-work measures.

Bob Kenney, 67, St. Louis

Kenney is a former member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

"Some unions have helped the economy and some have hurt the economy.

"I was forced to join IBEW 1455 as a requirement of employment. It did nothing for me and I left when I was promoted to supervisor. I believe that a right-to-work law would help Missouri compete for good manufacturing jobs. I would vote for it because I was once forced to join a union."

Joanne Gladney-Naumer, 63, St. Charles 

Though she has never been a member of a labor union, Gladney-Naumer wrote that "unions have helped the economy because they provide people highly skilled in their craft to make a decent wage. We all benefit from quality work being done and the economy benefits from buying power of families with a good salary. If unions are driven out of existence it will be a serious blow to the middle class in our country.

"Businesses … want to produce their products at a cheaper price to drive up their profits and they are largely unconcerned about the 'American thing' as their market is multinational. I would vote against right to work as it is really 'right to work for less.' The American worker has the unions to thank for setting the stage for decent salaries and benefits. If we lose them, it won't be long ‘til everyone's benefits and salaries are cut, and Americans live like a typical Mexican worker might."

Daniel Coker, 20, Foristell

Coker is a college student and has never been a member of a labor union.

"Unions, in general, have helped workers get fair wages and working conditions, which ultimately benefits the economy. On the other hand, unions sometimes decide to keep striking, despite receiving offers for fair pay, such as one Walmart strike. Also, unions occasionally prevent businesses from growing and prospering. I seem to remember Caterpillar being a victim of this once, by demanding wages that honestly are unreasonably high. So, all in all, it's a balance."

Robert Byrne, 76, St. Louis

"Workers in positions for which unions have obtained benefits are obligated to support those unions with dues payments. I consider this proposal the 'right to work for less.'" A former member of American Newspaper Guild, now the United Newspaper and Communications Workers, Byrne wrote that he would vote against such a proposal.

Clinton McBride, 27, St. Louis

McBride is a member of the Laborers' International Union of North America. "Unions have certainly helped the U.S. economy, and continue to do so. Henry Ford once realized the fact that if workers could not afford to buy the products they are building then our economy will come to a screeching halt. Unions have provided members with good wages and benefits so they can purchase things and remain a driving engine for our economy. In turn, those benefits trickle down to non-union jobs as well and raise the bar for everybody.

"I would vote against a so-called 'right-to-work' ballot initiative because it is simply a partisan issue intended to punish labor unions. Right-to-work laws create the climate for a race to the bottom. The price of milk, gas, or even rent has not gone down, so why, in the year 2013, should we be talking about reducing the wages of construction workers? We should be asking ourselves two questions. The first being why are workers in other fields not making more money? The prosperity ushered in by the 1950s did not occur as a result of reducing people's wages, but because the general populace made better wages. Secondly, CEO's and politicians aren't talking about reducing their benefits or wages, so why should construction labors have to make all of the concessions?"

Susan Turk, 60, St. Louis

“Unions have helped the U.S. economy by raising the standard of living. When workers earn more and have secure benefits they have more peace of mind and discretionary income to spend. I would vote against such a measure (that) would weaken unions and lower the standard of living in general. Some workers would be short sighted and not pay their dues. They would in essence be freeloaders and still benefit from the wages and benefits negotiated by the union, but the union would have fewer resources with which to represent workers' interests making it harder for them to do their job."

Anna Jackson, 66, St. Charles

Jackson is a retired public school teacher and a former member of the American Federation of Teachers. "Without unions we would be working for nothing. Don't ever believe that employers are going to ‘give’ anything to the American worker unless forced to do so by the union. My mother once told me that until the International Ladies Garment Workers Union came into her life, the seamstresses at the factory in Wentzville, Mo., had to ‘donate’ (it was taken out of their checks) 10 percent of their weekly wages to retirement of the debt on the factory building where they worked. They worked for close to nothing, in those days."

Stacy Mergenthal, 35, Wentzville

"I worked for Schnuck’s grocery store as a teenager and was a union member. Thanks to the union, I made more than minimum wage, which was what the vast majority of employers offered teenage workers at that time. Pushing dozens of carts in extreme weather (snow, storms, scorching summer heat) was made less tortuous due to much-needed, union-required breaks. Breaks for meals, rest, and restroom were meticulously scheduled and mandatory. I have never been treated as well as a non-union employee as I was as a union member at Schnuck’s."

Mergenthal would vote against right to work.

Byron Clemens, 61, St. Louis

Clemens is a member of the American Federation of Teachers.

"From the very foundations of organized labor (in conjunction with public education, health departments and progressive reforms) unions have benefited members and the community as a whole. Paid vacations, 40-hour work-week, holidays, weekends, child labor laws, work safety laws (OSHA), benefits, pensions have all benefited both union and non-union working families. In my profession the ability to advocate for the health and safety of children and employees without fear of recrimination by management benefits society in general."

Clemens wrote that he would vote "no" on a right-to-work proposal.

Sheri Wahlen, 52, Fenton

Wahlen is a retired family physician. "I was indirectly helped by unions. Limitations on work hours of physicians-in-training were instigated through unionizing activities. Requirements for vacations, family leave, holidays were also spearheaded by unions.

"Busting unions has hurt the U.S. economy. Middle and working class workers' wages have stagnated as the wealthy business and finance people have busted unions so the latter can get richer quicker. We have the worst gap between the top 1 percent and everyone else, not only in U.S. history, but also comparing to Europe, Asia and Canada. Our health care redistributes even more wealth from the poor and middle class to the wealthy. People who actually do the work can't afford to buy the products they make, while someone else hogs the profits."

Outreach specialist Linda Lockhart has been telling stories for most of her life. A graduate of the University of Missouri's School of Journalism, she has worked at several newspapers around the Midwest, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, as a reporter, copy editor, make-up editor, night city editor, wire editor, Metro Section editor and editorial writer. She served the St. Louis Beacon as analyst for the Public Insight Network, a product of Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media that helps connect journalists with news sources. She continues using the PIN to help inform the news content of St. Louis Public Radio. She is a St. Louis native and lives in Kirkwood.

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