In June, the Supreme Court dealt a devastating blow to organized labor, effectively dismantling the bargaining structure that, once upon a time, helped public-employee unions thrive. The share of workers that belonged to any union—public or private—had already been flagging for decades, and thanks to an increasingly business-friendly legal system, the future was looking dire.
But on Tuesday evening, organized labor notched a win—one that suggests actual voters are a lot higher on workers' rights than the people who represent them.
In a referendum, voters in the deep red state of Missouri struck down a Republican-backed "right-to-work" law that would've let private-sector workers opt-out of union dues, helping "free riders" enjoy the benefits of labor organizing without any skin in the game. The state legislature and governor had approved the bill last February, making it the 28th state to enact such measures.
Under Missouri law, new legislation can be put to a public referendum if about 100,000 state residents sign a petition to overturn it. Unions and their supporters last summer gathered 310,000 signatures to temporarily nullify the law. Tuesday’s vote means it will not take effect.
Despite the powers that be—from the Trump administration to the Supreme Court to state-level Republicans and their donors—doing their darnedest to kill unions, organized labor's victory in Missouri on Tuesday night is actually just one of a few recent triumphs. Earlier this year, teachers walked off the job in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona, demanding higher pay and better funded schools. As Alicia Priest, the president of Oklahoma Education Association, explained in a video, "Teachers are so drastically underpaid they are forced to donate plasma, work multiple jobs and go to food pantries to provide for their families."
After the West Virginia teacher's strike, when the state held their primary elections in May, almost 90 percent of candidates endorsed by the teacher's union emerged victorious. Meanwhile, teachers in all four states won pay increases.
The relative success of teachers' strikes across the nation shows just how much America still needs organized labor. (Full disclosure: I am a proud member of the Vice Union.) In this post-Citizens United era, money often reigns supreme over the voice of the American people—and while it's true that unions vastly outspent the opposition on the Missouri referendum, workers rarely have a real seat at the table in our democracy. It's not for lack of public support: As the New York Times reported, a Gallup poll last year showed approval of unions at its highest level since 2003. While the Supreme Court often seems to decide major labor cases on the basis of partisan politics, Missouri's Tuesday election is the latest evidence that when the choice is given directly to the American people, unions win.
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