Right-to-work bill divides Missourians

As it moves through state legislature

In this March 26, 2014, file photo, Missouri union workers listen to Gov. Jay Nixon during a rally against “right to work” legislation at the Capitol.

In this March 26, 2014, file photo, Missouri union workers listen to Gov. Jay Nixon during a rally against “right to work” legislation at the Capitol. Photo by Kile Brewer.

Retired pipefitter Daniel “Duke” McVey has been a die-hard union member for 60 years.

Ron Staggs began to turn his back on unions in the 1960s when the Teamsters gave him an ultimatum — pay dues or find another job.

Dave Anderson, a shop steward for United Food and Commercial Workers in Columbia, is convinced that organized labor helps far more people than simply its members.

Greg Johns was a labor organizer at Coke, Pepsi and Dr Pepper canneries in the 1970s, but he says he ultimately parted with unions over tactics and demands.

The four men are firmly planted on opposite sides of Missouri’s right-to-work debate, which is now churning through the state legislature.

In almost any other country, an individual’s right to work means a guaranteed job, often furnished by the government. In the 24 U.S. states that have right to work laws, the phrase means something else entirely: A person employed by a company that has a union does not have to join it or pay any form of dues.

That’s the heart of the matter in Missouri: Union leaders say such a law weakens their organizations and their ability to negotiate good contracts for workers.

The membership requirement is called the security clause, and it is one of the most important contract items negotiated by a union. Once it is in place, the agreement assures the union’s momentum.

A number of efforts over the years to move Missouri into the right-to-work camp have failed. This year, Republicans submitted several versions of right-to-work legislation, but HB 1770, sponsored by Rep. Eric Burlison, R-Springfield, rose to the top.

The House agreed upon the language in Burlison’s bill on April 9, and Republicans are now waiting on a handful of hold-outs before bringing it to a final vote. If both the House and the Senate approve a right-to-work bill, the issue could appear on a statewide ballot as early as August, bypassing a veto promised by Gov. Jay Nixon.

Voters then would be asked this question: “Shall Missouri law be amended to guarantee all people the freedom to work without being required to join or pay dues to any labor organization as a condition or continuation of employment?”

The first fight

In 1978, Missourians encountered right-to-work for the first time when a signature petition put it on the November ballot. At the time, it looked as if the measure would pass with ease.

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Former Missouri AFL-CIO President Daniel “Duke” McVey holds a Nov. 8, 1978, printing plate from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch front page after voters rejected a proposed “right to work” amendment.

In February of that year, Missourians favored the referendum by a 2-1 margin, according to an Illinois legislative research memo.

Then the state’s labor movement woke up.

At the beginning of its campaign, organized labor was stunned to learn that only half of its members were registered to vote, so officials embarked on a registration drive.

The NAACP jumped in, vowing to turn out 100,000 people on Election Day. The St. Louis Catholic Archdiocese held eight anti-right-to-work information sessions and sent 3,500 letters to clergymen about the archdiocese’s official stance.

McVey was at the forefront of opposition to the ballot issue, and he embarked on a statewide speaking tour to persuade voters to reject it.

“Our biggest thing that we had to do was educate our own members first because right-to-work sounds like it’s really, really, really good,” McVey said.

As a young man, McVey had left college to become a pipefitter, moved to Fort Leonard Wood near Rolla to work for two weeks and stayed for 18 years.

He joined the Plumbers’ and Pipefitters’ Local 562 in St. Louis. “(My dad) always told me: ‘Get in the union.’“

As he toured Missouri to head off the right-to-work movement in 1978, “the fairness issue became front and center,” he said.

Under U.S. labor law, labor organizations have a “duty of fair representation” that requires them to represent everyone in a unionized workplace, including nonunion members, from contract negotiations to settling grievances with their employer.

Currently, workers can resign union membership under a 1988 Supreme Court decision, Communications Workers of America v. Beck, but still must pay a portion of union membership dues that goes directly toward representation, known as agency fees. People who leave the union are known as “Beck objectors.”

The proposed right-to-work legislation would retain a union’s responsibility to represent all employees, but the union couldn’t collect agency fees, which is by far the bulk of dues it receives.

In 2003, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated union membership in Missouri at 336,000 people, while an additional 27,000 received union benefits, meaning 92.5 percent of dues payers were subsidizing the other 7.5 percent — the “free riders,” as union members derisively call them.

Ten years later, membership had dropped to 219,000, with 45,000 extra beneficiaries. The percentage of dues payers had fallen to 83 percent.

Put another way, the number of dues payers supporting Beck objectors fell 9.6 percent. Most of these objectors belong to public-sector unions, which make up half of Missouri’s union membership and already operate under right-to-work laws.

Union officials believe the so-called free-rider problem would lead to losses in revenue and weaken labor organizations. A right-to-work law that extends to private-sector unions would mean that dues payers would have to subsidize even more workers.

To solve the problem, some supporters advocate members-only unions, but if fewer than 50 percent of workers vote to unionize, an employer would not be required to recognize the union.

The idea that a worker can get something for nothing grates on McVey, even though he wouldn’t object to people who stop paying full dues.

In September 1978, the right-to-work proposal polled at 47 percent in favor, 32 percent against and 21 percent undecided.

Missouri residents didn’t change their mind until a month before the vote, after organized labor went on a 26-day advertising blitz.

In October, polls showed 39 percent in favor, 43 percent against and 18 undecided.

In November, the referendum was defeated by an overall 3-2 margin.

It was a record turnout for a nonpresidential election year: 1,580,216 Missourians voted. The old record had stood since voters first sent Harry Truman to the U.S. Senate in 1934.

McVey doesn’t know how a 1978-style campaign would shake out today. There were 600,000 union members back then. It appeared that every small town had some kind of factory and a local labor union.

But companies, and union jobs, have been drying up for years.

‘Forced unionism’

Johns worked on behalf of United Cannery in the late 1970s, organizing employees at Coke, Pepsi, 7UP and Dr Pepper plants in Phoenix. After the union successfully negotiated the first dental plan in the industry, it became a blueprint and spread to other soft-drink canneries.

The effort was no small feat. Because the climate in Phoenix is so hot, the city has one of the highest soda consumption rates in the country.

Johns’ negotiating strategy in Phoenix was unorthodox. He promised the companies that workers would not strike. Removing the most powerful weapon a union holds, he said, gave him enough credibility to get the companies on board with the dental plan.

In time, though, Johns said he fell out of love with union tactics and demands.

“I never thought it was right to force anybody to join (unions),” he said, emphasizing that right to work does not outlaw unions.

In 1984, Johns joined Missourians for the Right to Work, an organization founded in 1966 in St. Louis and now based in Sedalia.

Right-to-work laws can have a positive impact on union as well as state economies, he said. The legislation would make Missouri’s business environment more attractive. If that happened, he argued, more businesses would move in. And if more businesses move in, more workers would be available to organize.

Johns insists that his fervor for the principles of organized labor remains. In fact, he is convinced that right-to-work legislation would be one of the best things to happen to unions.

The right-to-work states surrounding Missouri have gained union members, he said. So have Michigan and Indiana, which adopted right-to-work laws in 2012.

Missouri, on the other hand, lost 51,000 union members between 2011 and 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Testifying before a state House committee meeting earlier this year, Johns challenged union leaders with this argument: If Missouri goes right-to-work, Johns said, he would personally organize 51,000 workers at $20 a head within 18 months.

“I’ll make over a million bucks doing it.”

Should another right-to-work fight come this year, Johns is ready: “When it goes to the ballot this time, they’re going to spend between $18 million and $30 million, the unions will. But this time, we’re going to spend $30 million to even out the odds,” he said.

He toyed with billboard ideas: “Save union jobs. Vote yes,” one might say.

But if right to work doesn’t make it out of the General Assembly this year, will it come back next year?

“Yes,” Johns said.

Will right to work come back every year until it passes?

“Yes.”

Negotiating for oneself

In the 1930s, organized labor faced an uphill struggle. The nation was in the middle of the Great Depression, but workers still demanded more from their employers.

Wildcat strikes, unsanctioned by union officials, often disrupted industrial output. To formalize the collective bargaining process, Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act in 1935.

The NLRA led to the era of the “closed shop,” requiring those who wanted a job at a unionized workplace to acquire it at the union hall.

In 1947, the Labor-Management Relations Act, colloquially known as the Taft-Hartley Act, amended the NLRA by outlawing the closed shop and including the right-to-work provision.

Taft-Hartley still allowed negotiations to include the “union shop,” which requires workers to join the union after being hired, and the “agency shop,” which requires workers to pay agency fees only.

Staggs, who lives in Paris, Mo., doesn’t think the law went far enough.

Now retired, Staggs spent his working career in the telephone industry, half in a union and half out.

In college, Staggs had a summer job that required him to join the Teamsters Union. The income helped pay his tuition.

When he returned to the job the following summer, a Teamster official confronted him and asked for the dues he’d missed in the offseason.

What dues? Staggs thought.

The official informed him that he had forgotten to get a withdrawal card when he left for school. It was just a formality, but technically he was part of the union, and if he wanted to get the job again, he owed back dues.

Staggs refused to pay. The incident played a role in his decision to drop out of college. Staggs enlisted in the Army in 1967 and trained as a radar technician.

Discharged in 1970, Staggs joined the Communications Workers of America and began working at various telephone companies. He was a customer service representative, an installer and a cable splicer. He had health insurance and a dental plan.

After being with labor organization for 15 years, Staggs was at the top of the union pay scale. Had right to work been in place, he said, his wages wouldn’t have stalled.

Right to work wasn’t a ripoff as unions claimed, he decided. He was already working for less than he might have earned without a union.

Staggs left the union team in 1985 and joined management as a construction foreman with Southwestern Bell. There, he said, his distaste for unions continued to grow.

Union members, he contended, paid lip service to safety. He said he saw incidents where workers didn’t follow protocol during roadside work and refused to wear hardhats below ground.

He thought: What’s all that negotiated protection for when workers didn’t take advantage of it?

He never saw a shop steward chew out a union member, but employers were on the hook for workers’ mistakes, and he decided that wasn’t fair.

Staggs believes that unions have outgrown their usefulness; he calls them “a failed economic model” that ensures mediocre wages.

Companies have a set budget to spend on labor costs, he figured, so contract negotiations are about slicing the dollar. If some people make more than they deserve for the job, that means others can’t make as much.

At the end of the day, unions limit the “fundamental right to negotiate.”

Not always about the money

When Anderson started working at the Gerbes Supermarket on West Broadway in Columbia, there hadn’t been a grievance in almost a decade.

Anderson, who transferred as seafood manager from the store on Paris Road, thought that was too good to be true. He suspected the shop steward wasn’t taking his job seriously enough.

A union official from the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 2 in Kansas City asked him to take over the position. He filed two grievances in his first week.

Anderson was elected to the executive board the next year, and for the past 16 years has run for the board unopposed.

When a spot opened up to become an apprentice meat cutter, Anderson used his seniority status to get in. The job doesn’t sound like a lot to learn, but with equipment such as saws, grinders and knives, there’s more to the job than you’d think, he said.

After training for two years, Anderson became a journeyman meat cutter, one of three in the meat department. Like Staggs, Anderson is at the top of the pay scale.

He waited 15 years to make the money he earns, he said, and so will anyone else who wants his job in the future.

Still, he couldn’t think of anyone at the store who pays only agency fees.

He maintains that organized labor helps more people than just its members.

Union compensation often sets the bar in an industry, too, he said, scaling nonunion compensation upward. In this way, the rising tide lifts all boats.

Union policies are often misunderstood, he said. For example, political contributions are extra and voluntary.

And there is nothing in a union contract that states an employer can’t pay someone more than the union amount, he added.

Also if someone feels they should be paid more than the top of the union scale, they can find a new job, he said.

In fact, if you talk to people about why they like union membership, Anderson said, it has very little to do with their wages.

Under Gerbes’ contract with the union, after working five days during the week, the sixth day is automatically calculated as overtime.

Employees can get health insurance after one year on the job if they average 16 hours a week every quarter.

Sixty percent to 70 percent of Gerbes’ employees on Broadway have a health insurance plan that includes dental and vision, he said.

Anderson believes all that could be in jeopardy if right-to-work legislation passes.

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