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Failed ’78 “Right to Work” campaign could shed light on coming battle

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Earlier this month, Republican Lt. Governor Peter Kinder told an audience at the national American Legislative Exchange Council convention in Chicago that “Right to Work” (RTW) didn’t have the legs to pass through Missouri’s Republican-controlled legislature, and that the matter would likely be placed on the ballot for the next general election.

Kinder’s words echo sentiments long-expressed by House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, who has called RTW a top priority for his party during his term as Speaker. Jones, Kinder and other supporters say that labor unions burden employees and employers and stifle economic activity.

Federal law prohibits unions from requiring full membership as a condition of unemployment. Labor unions argue that RTW bills severely weaken the power of unions to protect worker rights, negotiate for salary and benefits and ensure quality work.

Hugh McVey, Missouri AFL-CIO President (photo via the Labor Tribune)
Hugh McVey, Missouri AFL-CIO President (photo via the Labor Tribune)

Many of Missouri’s neighboring states, including Iowa, Oklahoma and Kansas, are RTW states, but the Show-Me State hasn’t seriously visited the issue since 1978 when a ballot initiative spawned a statewide battle between labor forces and conservative politicians. The measures was ultimately defeated by a 3-2 margin, despite early polling showing heavy support for the measure.

“The 1978 fight pales in comparison to what the fight would cost both sides now,” Missouri AFL-CIO President, Hugh McVey, told The Missouri Times. “We won big last time and the numbers kind of speak to that, but I don’t know that we’d win like that this time. Although I do still think we would win.”

McVey said another ballot initiative would likely pit large in and out-of-state donors against national labor organizations and their “vast ground game.” McVey said that the “ground game” for labor unions and the ability to mobilize rapidly would be the primary advantage they would have in battling RTW initiatives. But he also said that one could only learn so much from the 1978 fight.

“Union membership is much lower, number one,” McVey said. “And campaigns look different now than they did 40 years ago. The ads, the money that would come in, the outside consultants, I think all of that would dwarf [1978.]”

This seems to be the one area both sides agree on. Woody Cozad, founder and principle of Cozad Company Government Relations, was the primary spokesperson for the pro-RTW Freedom to Work Committee in 1978 and spend much of the campaign traveling the state and giving speeches on the advantages of the effort.

“Ballot initiatives are very, very expensive, even more now than before, and they are very hard,” Cozad said. “Back in 1978, the original advice to those pushing ‘Right to Work’ was to wait until they had a Republican legislature. But in 1978 that didn’t look likely.”

Cozad said the best opportunity to pass RTW was during Gov. Matt Blunt’s time in office when the Republican Party held majorities in both the House and Senate and there was no Democratic governor threatening to veto, as Gov. Jay Nixon has promised to do.

Woody Cozad, Principal of the Cozad Company (photo via the KC Pachyderms)
Woody Cozad, Principal of the Cozad Company (photo via the KC Pachyderms)

“But if you look closely at [Blunt’s] time in office, they didn’t peruse many measures that pushed against unions, it just wasn’t a priority at the time,” Cozad said. “The best way for them to pass ‘Right to Work’ is to wait until they have a Republican governor. That said, it hurts Missouri not to have a ‘Right to Work’ law now to compete for businesses.”

While the merits of RTW are up for debate between the two sides, those present during the 1978 fight all seem to agree on one thing: a ballot initiative fight would be uniquely expensive and bloody, and the easiest and quickest way for RTW to become law is for the general assembly to pass it under a Republican governor.

But with Democrat Nixon threatening to veto and Republicans likely unable to muster the 109 votes needed to override because of more moderate members in heavily union-employed districts, the odds of the General Assembly moving RTW legislation in the next few years is minimal.

“We’re always on the lookout for ‘Right to Work’ legislation, and we know that a ballot issue would be an ugly, ugly fight.” McVey said. “But it’s just one issue that Republicans feel very strongly about and we try to stay engaged with people on both sides of the aisle to keep that kind of policy from coming down the pipe, and we try to explain what it is, which is a corporate grab at more earnings by way of destroying our ability to unionize.”

Cozad, who approached ‘RTW’ from the other side of the debate, agreed about the coming fight as being particularly nasty.

“I think it’s a disservice to Missouri’s economy not to have a ‘Right to Work’ law, which is shown to attract business and create jobs, but what Republicans need to be asking themselves is: is it worth it to have a long, bloody ballot fight for ‘Right to Work,’ or better to delay it and wait until you have a Republican Governor? And that’s a decision that people in positions to make that call will have to seriously weigh.”