JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Missouri voters delivered a resounding victory to unions Tuesday, rejecting a right-to-work law against compulsory union fees that had been passed by Republican state officials but placed on hold for more than a year after organized labor petitioned for a referendum.
National and local labor unions spent millions of dollars to defeat Proposition A, hoping to reverse the momentum against them from a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling and the adoption of similar laws limiting labor powers in other historically strong union states.
Officials at the AFL-CIO called the Missouri vote "a truly historic moment."
"Today Missouri gave hope to workers across the nation," said Missouri AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Jake Hummel, who is a Democratic state senator.
The referendum marked the first chance for the public to weigh in on union powers since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in late June that public sector employees cannot be compelled to pay fees to unions. Missouri's ballot measure essentially would have extended that to all private sector employees, mirroring laws that already exist in 27 other states.
At issue are so-called fair-share fees, which are less than full dues but are intended to cover unions' nonpolitical costs such as collective bargaining. Unions say it's fair for people to pay the fees, because federal law requires them to represent even those employees who don't join. But supporters of right-to-work laws counter that people should have the right to accept a job without being required to pay a union.
Former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens signed a right-to-work bill passed by the Republican-led Legislature in February 2017. It was set to take effect as law on Aug. 28. But before that could happen, union organizers submitted enough petition signatures to suspend its implementation pending a statewide referendum.
Right-to-work supporters had been banking on Greitens to help draw money and attention to their campaign. But Greitens resigned amid scandal on June 1 and disappeared from the public spotlight.
Unions powered an opposition effort that had spent more than $15 million as of late July, well over three times as much as various groups that support right-to-work. Advertisements generally have focused on economics, with supporters claiming right-to-work would lead to more jobs and opponents claiming it would drive down wages.
The opposition argument was persuasive with voter Laura Kuhn, of Chesterfield, who said she cast her ballot against right-to-work.
"The unions are important for Missouri. It would cut the unions and hurt wages for sure," she said.
Columbia resident Joy Cook said she had previously been a union member but voted in favor of Proposition A.
"Unions should have to be good enough for the employees to want to pay into them," she said. "Any organization where you just get people giving you money, you're going to be a little lax."
Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry President Dan Mehan vowed that right-work supporters would try again, saying: "With the future of our state's economy on the line, we cannot concede hope that Missouri will soon join most other states and pass freedom to work protections."
Studies looking at the economic effects of right-to-work laws have found mixed and sometimes conflicting results.
The Washington-based Economic Policy Institute, which opposes right to work, found that wages in right-to-work states average 3.1 percent less than elsewhere after accounting for other workforce differences such as educational backgrounds, racial composition, the industrial makeup of employers and the cost of living.
But a case study focused on Oklahoma found different results. Economists Ozkan Eren of Louisiana State University and Serkan Ozbeklik of Claremont McKenna College in California used data from states with similar characteristics to analyze the effect of Oklahoma's 2001 right-to-work law. They found it resulted in a significant reduction in private sector unionization rates but had no short-term effect on either the total unemployment rate or average private sector wages.
Most right-to-work laws were enacted in the 1940s and 1950s. But Republicans have led a resurgence of such laws, starting in Indiana in 2012 and following in Michigan, Wisconsin, West Virginia and Kentucky.
Union membership in Missouri stood at 8.7 percent of the workforce last year, compared to 10.7 percent nationally, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nationwide union membership rates have been steadily falling for decades and are now less than half of what they were in 1978, when Missouri voters last defeated a right-to-work proposal.
Associated Press reporters Jim Salter in Chesterfield and Summer Ballentine in Columbia contributed to this report.