Union supporters numbering in the thousands, many of them bused in from across the state, crowded into the Missouri Capitol rotunda for a special rally Friday.
The event was staged to announce the number of signatures gathered in an effort to get the state’s new right to work law placed before voters. The raucous crowd filled the capital building with constantly mounting energy and noise as representative from all eight congressional districts revealed their signature tallies.
A total of roughly 100,000 are required to ensure the law goes before voters in the form of a referendum. Valid signatures totaling five percent of voters in the last governor’s election from six of the eight Missouri congressional districts are needed to push the effort across the finish line.
The crowd seemed to be aware of the benchmark as all six figures were revealed individually. The final count was 310,567, which easily tripled the required total and left a mammoth cushion to guard against irregularities that could invalidate signatures.
When the tally was announced, union members on stage led the spirited crowd in chants and singing, repeating the phrase “Tell me what democracy looks like, this is what democracy looks like.”
A man named Dennis Palmer represented the 4th Congressional District in the petition drive for signatures. He was optimistic voters would reject the right to work law once they understood what to would do.
“I think it’s just a matter of educating the people of what right to work actually stands for” said Palmer. “And I think once that’s out there, I think people will see it differently, actually the opposite of what it really sounds like.”
Missouri’s right to work law frees workers from having to join a union at shops where organized labor negotiates their wages.
Following the rally in the capitol, the crowd marched to the secretary of state’s office for Petition Delivery for the next step of validating the signatures.
Right to Work supporters have mounted a legal challenge and are hoping the state Supreme Court will block the union effort.
They brought a lawsuit shortly after Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft approved language in the ballot summary that was attached to documents union canvassers carried as they’re collected signatures. (The same language would be used in the in the ballot box where it would appear as the “ballot title” for voters to examine).
Right to work proponents claimed the language in the ballot summary was vague, misleading and confusing. A circuit court agreed with them and rewrote the summary, only to be overturned by an appeals court in Kansas City.
Right to work attorneys then hit a brick wall when the appeals court refused their request to send the case to the state Supreme Court. They responded by filing an application themselves to have it transferred there.
The Supreme Court will release decisions on a full slate of cases on Tuesday, August 22nd, and it’s not known if they’ll announce whether they’ll accept or reject the right to work lawsuit at that time.
The success so far of the union effort hasn’t gone unnoticed by pro right to work organizations with deep pockets.
The Missouri Chamber of Commerce has vowed to mount a full throated campaign to support the law, although chamber President and CEO Dan Mehan hasn’t revealed how much money will go into its effort.
The Americans for Prosperity Foundation (AFP) announced earlier in August that it was launching a six-figure campaign, including on-the-ground canvassing, phone-banking, and print and digital advertisements to back the law.
Right to work supporters with connections to dark money have also come to the table. Two nonprofits donated $600,000 to political action committees working to protect the statute. As non-profits that are classified 501(c)(4) entities, the organizations don’t have to report their donors.
And on the ground, a non-profit called Liberty Alliance was formed to support the law and oppose union ballot effort. The organization received unflattering attention after four men openly carrying guns were seen approaching people at the St. Joseph courthouse with its brochures.
Among the members of the Liberty Alliance are two influential Republican state lawmakers, Senator Bob Onder of Lake St. Louis and Representative Holly Rehder of Sikeston.
Rehder claims unions have been trying to intimidate people for years with misinformation. “Since I got in the legislature and started fighting for this, I’ve heard so many misnomers that really just scares families” said Rehder. “That bothers me so much.”
Onder thinks auto factory jobs suffered when voters rejected a right to work law in the late 1970’s. “When Missouri last consider right to work in 1978, our area had three major auto production facilities” said Onder. “Today we’re down to just one in my district, in Wentzville.”
Auto plants tend to be heavily unionized outside of southern states. A General Motors plant in Wentzville started a third production shift in 2014, which added 750 jobs and brought employment to 3,350. The Claycomo Ford plant near Kansas City employs nearly 6,500 people. Hourly employees at both factories are represented by the United Auto Workers union.