How We Beat ‘Right to Work’

Editor's note: In an astonishing turnaround, a 1978 ballot initiative by the National Right-To-Work Committee to turn Missouri into a right-to-work state was defeated by a 3-2 margin.

Jerry Tucker, then a Washington, D.C., staffer for the United Auto Workers, returned to his home state that August to manage the campaign. It put together the strongest coalition of progressive forces Missouri has ever seen—and dealt Republicans a lasting defeat.

When Missouri Republicans began to agitate for right to work again last year, retiring Republican Senator Kit Bond counseled them against it, saying the 1978 battle was “a disaster” for the GOP.

Workers in 12 new states are threatened by right to work this year. What can we learn from labor’s victory in Missouri last time?



Missouri in 1978 looked like a good target for the “right-to-work” forces. An industrial union stronghold with many characteristics of a Southern state, a RTW victory there could have a domino effect. Missouri would put organized labor’s unity and power to the test.

Initial polls showed RTW passing by a 2-1 majority, and even union members were 51 percent in favor. State labor officials favored a legal strategy, and had no plan to reach union members—much less the communities beyond labor. We had to turn that around.

The United Labor Committee, a statewide body with representatives from the AFL-CIO, UAW, Teamsters, and Mine Workers, raised $2.5 million to run the campaign against right to work. Twice the committee requested donations from member unions equivalent to 50 cents per member.

Some unions asked locals or internationals to cover the donation. Some, like the UAW, went directly to the membership—which had important benefits. Members were educated about the campaign and gained a personal stake once they reached into their own pockets.

For example, Local 93 in Kansas City produced buttons: “I fought against the RTW.” One person on each line was assigned to sell the buttons and inform people of the dangers of RTW. Some paid a dollar; others gave as much as $100. The women’s committee sponsored a dance to augment the collections.

The campaign was three-pronged: First was voter registration, get out the vote, and rank-and-file action. Second was communication through the media, direct mail, and phonebanking. Last was coalition building.

WHO TO TARGET?

The campaigners estimated that less than half of Missouri’s 500,000 union members were registered to vote. A campaign based on multiple contacts by phone and mail and in person resulted in an estimated 100,000 new union registrants.

The labor committee relied heavily on polling and surveys. We needed to know who to reach and who to leave alone.

Though an early poll showed RTW winning, the same poll showed an even split in attitudes toward the concept of RTW. We knew education about the amendment’s true nature could carry the day.

Speakers bureaus were organized, and anti-RTW speakers appeared in debates, on TV and radio, and before civic, community, and religious groups. The campaign developed talking points, circulated them, and turned rank and filers loose.

Bumper stickers let people know RTW was not what it seemed on its face. The labor committee hired PR professionals, but the main message—“Right to Work Is a Ripoff”—came from a rank and filer.

Different messages were crafted to appeal to different audiences:

Fairness and Democracy. Opposed freeloading and championed majority decision-making in the workplace. Used heavily among farmers, students, and the clergy (as “The Moral Case against RTW”).

We’re All in This Together. Stressed the link between union wages, purchasing power, and the fate of small farmers and small business.

Social Swamp. Pointed to the lower wages, higher poverty, poorer education, and stingier social services in RTW states. Pointed out the threat to pensions.

Social Chaos. Suggested that uncertainty would hit Missouri if all union-shop contracts were nullified. Opposing right to work became common sense. Labor didn’t seem self-interested, because people heard arguments in their own language and in line with their own interests. Partly that came about through careful message-crafting, and partly it happened because the campaign was open and freewheeling enough to give activists a sense of shared ownership. We’re all in this together, it said.

The campaign used demographic data developed by a commercial marketing firm, broken down to target households, with labels like “low/middle-income ethnic blue collar.” Combined with poll data, it was possible to identify very small groups of “persuadable” voters. In each cluster, voters were targeted with messages tailored to each demographic group.

Meanwhile, the opposition was also using mail, phonebanks, personal visits, and mass media. The United Labor Committee knew it needed a broad-based coalition. But we only had six weeks before the vote.

MAKING FRIENDS

One important group was Missouri’s family farmers, whom the RTW forces believed they would harvest. But the campaign tied farmers’ pricing power to consumers’ purchasing power and the fact that RTW states all have less per capita income. The same argument worked with a great number of small businesses.

“If farmers are gonna get a price for their product, they can’t rely on the rich,” read a quote in one leaflet mailed to farmers. “There’s no volume there. They’ve got to rely on working people—and that means people with enough money to buy what the farmers want to sell.”

The National Farmers Organization and leaders of the American Agricultural Movement participated in rallies and motorcades against RTW throughout rural Missouri.

Civil rights organizations stepped up, and national leaders such as Coretta Scott King visited Missouri. They emphasized that RTW hurts the underprivileged and minorities first and worst. Dozens of ministers took the message into the black wards of Kansas City and St. Louis.

Women’s groups such as NOW held rallies. Senior citizens were a bedrock, handling the brunt of canvassing on election day. Students, however, seemed to misunderstand the issue and were not successfully recruited.

A majority of the state’s major officeholders from both parties spoke out against RTW and many appeared at campaign functions. Urban Republicans in particular felt the deepening social heat.

Religious opposition to RTW was vital. It gave weight to the moral case—“Democratic decision-making in the workplace is just, and collective bargaining is good for society.” It allowed labor to reach tens of thousands of Missourians through their churches.

Religious opposition drew much attention in the press, helping to create a “good guys” image for unions and the reverse for the right-to-workers. The RTW campaign, with business as its principal backer, began to look sinister.

Not all big business, however, took a pro-RTW stand. Union companies like McDonnell-Douglas, Anheuser-Busch, and the Big 3 automakers all took a highly publicized “bye,” as did many of the largest construction firms and contractors.

The coalition effort helped to gain desperately needed media coverage. Paid media ads couldn’t win the vote, since both sides were spending nearly the same.

MAINSTAY: RANK AND FILERS

Rank-and-file unionists were the mainstay of the campaign. In fact, some couldn’t seem to do enough, and at the outset thought their leaders weren’t doing enough.

While the labor committee was still ramping up, members were acting on their own. They set up meetings, visited the merchants with whom they did business, painted signs on their cars, and worked the polls.

Many traveled from urban areas back to their childhood homes in rural Missouri to urge folks there to vote “no.” On weekends, caravans of urban and suburban workers traveled to meet farmers and small-town shopkeepers to make their case against RTW.

Motorcyclists cruised the highways in bunches, with banners opposing RTW. Truckers used CB radios to maintain a steady stream of anti-RTW conversations on the interstates.

In November the “no” vote took 60 percent. The 1.6 million ballots cast set an off-year election record, with 60 percent of registered voters going to the polls. Right to work galvanized the big vote; Missourians cast 100,000 more ballots on the amendment than they did in statewide candidates’ race.

New member organizing spiked upward for several years afterward.


A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #384, March 2011. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.