In February 2017, Missouri became the 28th state to enact a right-to-work law over the objections of organized labor, but the law, which was set to go into effect on August 28, faces a new hurdle that may jeopardize its future.
On August 18, labor union representatives delivered over 300,000 signed petitions to the Missouri Secretary of State seeking to place the law on the 2018 ballot through a rarely utilized procedural tactic, and if the signatures are found to be valid, the law could be blocked until voters decide on whether to enact it.
The maneuver comes as little surprise, given that labor unions made plain their intention to gather signatures for a referendum. Still, the number of petitions they collected was more than triple what was necessary to place the right-to-work question on the ballot, perhaps to shield the petition from accusations that organizers collected signatures using misleading language or other dubious means.
As this blog has observed on various occasions, organized labor detests right-to-work laws more than just about anything because they claim bitterly that such laws force unions to represent individuals without compensation. They have made that argument in several state and federal court cases challenging right-to-work laws, but so far courts have rejected this line of reasoning.
Perhaps knowing that their chances of a judicial victory are rather low, union leaders took advantage of Missouri’s ballot initiative process in which voters can overturn a law enacted by the legislature. To do so, organizers must collect signatures from at least five percent of the state’s voters from at least two-thirds of the state’s congressional districts, which translates into approximately 100,000 voters. According to the Kansas City Star, the ballot initiative process is seldom employed—the last time was 35 years ago—but when it has been, voters overturned statutes in 24 out of 26 cases.
Given their ostensible success in gathering the requisite number of valid signatures, labor unions and their allies will now spend the ensuing months—and lots of money—to convince voters to overturn the law. As they typically do, union leaders will brush aside the economic evidence that right-to-work laws are actually good for a state’s economy.
Meanwhile, supporters of Missouri’s right-to-work law are waging their own legal battle to stop the ballot initiative based on the Secretary of State’s summary statement used to inform voters about the nature of the ballot initiative. In June, a Cole County circuit court judge found that the language of the summary was “unfair and insufficient” and ordered the Secretary of State to “immediately certify” a summary statement devised by the court.
Despite that favorable ruling, on July 28, the Missouri Court of Appeals Western District reversed the Cole County court and said that though the summary might not be perfect, it is not so poor as to be legally insufficient.
The attorney for those hoping to stop the referendum reportedly plans to appeal the decision to the Missouri Supreme Court, and observers of labor policy will have to await the results of that case to know whether the challenge to right-to-work in Missouri will proceed. If it does, it will be an interesting campaign to watch.