It’s been years in the making, but the right-to-work wave that swept into the statehouses of Michigan and Wisconsin crashed into Missouri this year, when state lawmakers voted to pass legislation that would ban unions from making membership a condition for employment.
Right now, half of the Union’s 50 states have right-to-work laws, but that figure will rise if Missouri lawmakers can gather enough votes to override Democratic Governor Jay Nixon’s veto. The first time around, 92 state representatives and 21 state senators supported the right-to-work bill. They will need 109 and 23 votes, respectively, to overcome the veto. But it’s not as large of a jump as it might seem. The statehouse has already overridden Governor Jay Nixon about two dozen times. Democrats are staunchly united against right-to-work, but a number of Republicans also opposed it.
What’s in a name?
Not surprisingly, union opposition to right-to-work has been staunch, but it has also been subtle and potentially deceptive at times. One of the groups fighting against the state’s right-to-work bill, for example, is The Committee to Protect MO Families. On paper, the group has a lot going for it – a name that resonates with voters, the support of Gov. Nixon, and a “broad-based coalition” that it says includes hundreds of supporting businesses and individuals.
In reality, however, Watchdog reporter Jason Hart found that 98 percent of the funding for The Committee to Protect MO Families last year came from just one source, Carpenters Help In the Political Process. CHIPP is a political action committee run by the Carpenters’ District Council of St. Louis & Vicinity and operates out of the union’s St. Louis headquarters. So, essentially, Hart explains, the group is a carpenters’ union front.
Hart found a similar case in a group called Preserve Middle Class Missouri. Like The Committee to Protect MO Families, its name doesn’t suggest union involvement,and it is the state-focused branch of Preserve Middle Class America, a nonprofit that bills itself as “a grassroots coalition of citizens and organizations.” What it doesn’t advertise, however, is that it is run by the Teamsters union.
Yet another organization, We Are Missouri, is even more shadowy about the groups behind it. Its website lists no union affiliation, no leaders’ names and no mailing address, but Hart found leads that point to its union backing. In 2013, for example, Missouri AFL-CIO president Hugh McVey was quoted in a news story as one of several spokespeople for We Are Missouri. Furthermore, in 2012 the group was paid $45,861 by AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, D.C. for “state legislative advocacy,” and the AFL-CIO hosts a number of call-to-action forms on We Are Missouri’s website.
The “solidarity” of the bosses
It’s popular to harp on the problem of inequality these days (a concern often raised by opponents of right-to-work), but there’s still one place where huge pay gaps are apparently acceptable: in organized labor. As Hart found in his investigations into Missouri unions, executives and staffers of the state’s carpenters union earn nearly twice as much, on average, as the workers they represent. The average employee of the Carpenters’ District Council of Greater St. Louis & Vicinity earns $88,680 (50 of whom earned more than $125,000), compared to $50,120 for the average Missouri carpenter.
The trend holds true for many other Missouri union leaders. For example, Jim Kabell, the primary Missouri contact for the aforementioned Preserve Middle Class America, was paid a total of $177,081 by Teamsters headquarters and Teamsters affiliates in 2014 – that’s more than three times as much as the average Missouri family.
The hypocrisy also extends to the national level. AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, for instance, is a fiery critic of CEO salaries, but Trumka himself earned $322,000 last year – all taken from union dues.
Union supporters argue workers shouldn’t care that union bosses are paid six figures because, they claim, executives at huge corporations are paid more. But according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, average corporate CEO pay last year was $216,100. Not only does Trumka’s hefty salary top that by more than $100,000, but he is not even one of the 100 highest-paid union bosses in America.
The political reality
Regardless of how the votes in Jefferson City pan out, the fact remains that unions are on the decline nationally, having dropped from around 30 percent of all workers in the 1960s to around 11 percent last year. Missouri itself has seen a drop in union membership from 27 percent to 8 percent of workers in that span. But the most recent right-to-work progress has happened in union-heavy states like Wisconsin and Michigan.
In his report on how labor unions’ dwindling muscle in Missouri mirrors their national decline, Watchdog reporter Eric Boehm sums it up like this: “Right-to-work laws aren’t causing this trend, they’re a result of it.”
What opponents seem to fail to grasp is that right-to-work is not inherently destructive to unions. All it says is that workers in any given industry should have a choice whether they want to join a union or not. If the worker believes the cost of their dues outweighs the benefits of being part of a union, he or she should not be compelled to join. There’s even an argument to be made that right-to-work will help strengthen unions because it will foster competition, forcing them to improve their services. As Jason Hart found, it turns out that a majority of Missourians (and a majority of Americans, more broadly) do not believe that union membership should be a condition for employment.
As a result, it has become a losing issue politically. The fact that a veto-proof majority in favor of right-to-work is even a possibility speaks for itself. In the long run, it likely won’t matter whether the state legislature can pull together the two-thirds majority. Come 2016, Missouri politicians who threw their hat in with the unions are going to face a tough battle.