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Jerry Tucker

05/08/05

Defeating Right-to-Work in Missouri, 1978: A Rank & File Victory
by Jerry Tucker

For students of the U.S. labor movement, searching the 1970s for meaningful working class victories can prove to be a tedious and frustrating task.  During the tumultuous 1960s, U.S. labor, at best, offered benign neglect to the potentially transformational struggles of that era -- Civil Rights, anti-Vietnam War resistance, women's rights, environmental, and other pivotal social conflicts.  Labor, as an institution, went into the 1970s isolated, defensive, and bureaucratic.

It was a decade which began with Nixon's wage controls, minus effective price controls.  It featured “stagflation” and the first big oil crisis. Some labor leaders saw the presidential election of Democrat Jimmy Carter as an opportunity to renew pursuit of certain, albeit timidly drawn, public policy objectives.  Hope was crushed, however, with the failure of Congress to enact the Labor Law Reform Act of 1977 (labor failed to mount a grassroots campaign to match the business community’s full-court press back home) and the watering down of the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment and Planning Act.  The decade ended with Carter’s defeat and the stage set for Ronald Reagan, “Supply-Side Economics,” and the start of a deep recession. 

There were two working class victories in the 1970s, which a less isolated, more socially engaged labor movement might have gained greatly from.  One was the relative success of the United Farm Workers movement, led by Cesar Chavez and the national boycotts that anchored that struggle and, near the end of the decade, the victorious struggle of the Memphis Sanitation Workers during which Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.  Those critical worker struggles and potential social movement building blocks where virtually ignored by Labor’s bureaucracy.

A lesson similarly lost on an increasingly impotent labor movement at that time was the unlikely, but dynamic labor victory in 1978 over the well-financed referendum campaign to pass a right-to-work law in the state of Missouri (such laws outlaw agreements between employers and unions in which each member of the bargaining unit must either join the union or pay a dues equivalent to the union). The many-layered, multi-textured anti-RTW campaign stunned a fast-growing new anti-labor right wing in America. Unfortunately, the campaign’s architecture, it’s strategies, tactics, energies, and social dimensions, which had “movement-building” stamped all over them, quickly and summarily wound up in a dusty trophy cabinet.  The victory had given U.S. labor a momentary glimpse of its potential, and U. S. labor couldn’t handle it!

 At its core, this is the story of an insular national labor movement, slow to respond to the call to action from a concerned but strategically challenged state labor leadership.  It is, more importantly, the story of frustrated local union leaders and self-activating rank-and-file unionists, dedicated to defending the integrity of Missouri’s union shop status, eager for an overall plan of action.  And, it is the story of a handful of younger national labor activists who shared a vision of a larger community of interest and, once on the ground in Missouri, projected a strategy of broad-based coalition-building, with labor’s rank-and-file being the thousands of points of contact with known allies and potential allies throughout the state.

For a number of years, the National Right-To-Work Committee and its local arm had been testing the “Show-Me” state’s political waters for the launch of an all-out attempt to outlaw union security contracts in highly unionized Missouri.  A victory for RTW in Missouri would, the New Right projected, have a domino effect in a number of other industrialized, non-RTW states.  Many national labor leaders, particularly those within AFL-CIO headquarters, acknowledged the potential threat matter-of-factly and expressed a hope that Missouri state labor leadership could handle the problem.  The ability of the national labor center to relate to, or envision the activation of a bottom-up, horizontally designed grassroots campaign did not exist.

In 1978, I was working in the United Auto Workers’ (UAW) Washington office.  Having lobbied on both the Labor Law Reform legislation and the Humphrey-Hawkins Bill, I had argued for greater “back home” base-level activity in support of each of those bills.  Polite nods, but very little grassroots action was employed. Labor’s lobbying, particularly on the Reform Bill, was mainly an “inside the beltway” effort.  Late in the summer of that year, I discussed the RTW threat in Missouri with UAW President Douglas Fraser.  Since I was from St. Louis and had been instrumental in earlier efforts to head off RTW in the Missouri State Legislature, maybe there was a role for me in what I knew was going to be a major ballot battle that year.

Fraser agreed, and I showed up in Missouri in late August and met with key state labor leaders.  The polls that had been conducted showed RTW passing by a two-to-one majority and even in union households RTW was polling 51 percent in support of the initiative.  A snapshot of that moment said, “Right-To-Work is going to pass, and it’s not even going to be close.”  Some of the key state labor leaders were betting on the courts throwing out the initiative petitions the State RTW Committee had collected.  But fortunately, the rank and file wasn’t buying it.

Working with leaders who rejected the “wait for the courts” strategy, I found a significant number of efforts already underway that were beginning to pay dividends. Voter registration among union families was dramatically up.  The combination of outside political consultant Matt Reese’s direct contact program and, the real secret weapon, peer-to-peer workplace and community outreach by rank-and-filers, was paying off.  But, despite the big increases, new union registrations would not have been enough.  Recognition of that reality gave the national AFL-CIO Field Services staff a wake-up call and effectively shelved them for the rest of the campaign because their focus was to rely almost exclusively on the “‘COPE Operating List” contacts. (COPE is the AFL-CIO’s political action committee.)

Again, working with key state leaders who felt the upward pressure from the ranks, the new overall blueprint for the campaign was approved in mid-September.  It called for three interactive spheres of activity: 1) the actual registration and get-out-the-vote activity; 2) new interdependent communications strategies and “message” development; and 3) the most intense coalition building and community allies outreach program ever imagined by anyone associated with the campaign.  All three were constructed with the intention of complementing and further encouraging the self activity and the ever increasing rank-and-file participation.

It worked. The newly defined campaign configuration gave energized union members and their families new incentives to connect with a growing network of community supporters ranging from family farmers to inner-city unemployed workers; from small businesses who saw their stake in a healthy economy and worker spending power to consumer and environmental activists; from senior citizens and retirees to upper income women (in silk stocking neighborhoods) who opposed RTW in order to enhance the chances of passing the Equal Rights Amendment in the state.

The campaign specifically encouraged union members to approach their church and religious leaders for support.  Small handout cards were designed which introduced the member to shopkeepers and commercial contacts as a “union worker…who’s wage and benefits determined his/her ability to maintain current levels of purchasing power.” 

On weekends, “caravans” of urban/suburban workers traveled into rural Missouri to meet farmers and small-town shop keepers and residents and make the case against RTW.  Motorcyclists cruised the state highways in bunches with banners opposing RTW.  Truckers used CB radios to maintain a steady stream of anti-RTW conversations on the Interstates crisscrossing Missouri. 

Late in the campaign, we were able to purchase radio and TV time with messages which complimented the themes rank and filers were pushing throughout their communities, including the campaign’s signature slogan: "Right-to-Work is a Rip-Off."

On November 7, in a non-presidential election year, it all paid off.  Missouri voters “crushed RTW-Amendment 23 by an overwhelming 60 percent NO vote.”

An acknowledgement of these winning elements was captured in the text of the UAW’s Solidarity Magazine coverage of the struggle by reporter Jeff Stansbury:

How did the New Right lose? The key to its defeat is found in the coalition organized and led by workers, which included farmers, students, environmentalists, who saw they had a mutual interest in the struggle against ‘right-to-work.’ The pivotal force was the rank and file worker.  Since the organizing days of the 1930s, Missouri had not seen the outpouring of working class [activities]…that it saw this fall.

What we achieved in Missouri in 1978 was unprecedented and hasn’t been matched since.   How we achieved it was even more important.  Would the lessons of this dynamic victory, representing as it did a stunning reversal of labor’s fortunes in most of the 1970s, be adapted to new and equally challenging struggles?  A small window offering the potential of “social movement unionism” had been opened.  Would a fossilized labor movement take advantage of it?  Or would business-as-usual unionism reclaim the day?

Several of us who had felt the surge coming from the ranks, and the new buoyancy of common-cause coalition work, took the time to comprehensively analyze the victory and make some concrete recommendations.  Our UAW team produced a thirty-five page Report on the 1978 Missouri Campaign and its Implications for the Future entitled “Beating Right-To-Work.”  This report was intentionally circulated as widely as possible, including to the presidents of every national union and virtually all AFL-CIO senior staff.  Comments were more frequently heard on the thoroughness of the report than the new strategic options it revealed.  Within months, the report, like the victory itself, faded from view.

Later in 1979, the same UAW team drafted a follow-up proposal designed to tap the Missouri lessons and take the offensive against RTW type anti-unionism nationally.  We proposed the creation of a new labor-backed, coalition-geared National Committee for Democracy in the Workplace (a working title). The proposal was comprehensive, and even had a simple, but effective, funding mechanism. It was designed to provide labor’s rank-and-file, as well as the leadership with a vehicle for engaging in broad-based campaigns, including those that would stimulate new membership organizing opportunities (new member organizing spiked upward in Missouri for several years after the RTW defeat).

This “Democracy in the Workplace” proposal was supposed to have been reviewed at an AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting in 1980.  To this day, no one has ever confirmed that it was, and the proposal, like the concept that it represented, “died for lack of a second!”

U.S. labor emerged from the 1970s having learned little from its numerous defeats, and apparently less from its few victories.  It was ripe for the picking in the 1980s.  The context of the dilemma facing today’s working class stretches back across many decades.  Some of today’s labor leaders are preoccupied with questions of structure, density, and resource allocations, in the search for solutions to the increasing weakness of labor as a movement.  They tend to ignore the culture that accepted decades of defeats.  The current debate, however, suggests an institutional inability, or unwillingness, to activate and democratically respond to our greatest assets, our rank-and-file, and to our natural allies in communities whose need for social movement justice is as great as our own.   

  

Jeff Stansbury was assigned to the campaign as part of the UAW team and worked with a number of the coalition groups and labor rank and filers developing campaign literature and coalition support pieces for publication. He left the UAW in 1986 and, for some time, worked for both the Garment Workers and Hotel Workers unions on the West Coast .  Today he is finishing a UCLA  PhD dissertation on the Progressive-era Los Angeles labor movement which credits that movement with a leading roll in city-building.

“Beating Right-To-Work” was issued in February, 1979.  It contained detailed exit polling data and broke down community groups and how they voted.  The report also outlined the “message” production and rated each one’s effectiveness.  Appendices included copies of budgeting, organizational structure, ad copy, news clips, community-sector literature pieces, and copies of other campaign materials.

The draft proposal was turned over to UAW President Doug Fraser who, along with William Winpisinger of the IAM, was to have brought it before the AFL-CIO Ex-Council in early 1980. 

Jeff Stansbury was assigned to the campaign as part of the UAW team and worked with a number of the coalition groups and labor rank and filers developing campaign literature and coalition support pieces for publication. He left the UAW in 1986 and, for some time, worked for both the Garment Workers and Hotel Workers unions on the West Coast .  Today he is finishing a UCLA  PhD dissertation on the Progressive-era Los Angeles labor movement which credits that movement with a leading roll in city-building.

“Beating Right-To-Work” was issued in February, 1979.  It contained detailed exit polling data and broke down community groups and how they voted.  The report also outlined the “message” production and rated each one’s effectiveness.  Appendices included copies of budgeting, organizational structure, ad copy, news clips, community-sector literature pieces, and copies of other campaign materials.

The draft proposal was turned over to UAW President Doug Fraser who, along with William Winpisinger of the IAM, was to have brought it before the AFL-CIO Ex-Council in early 1980. 


Jerry Tucker is a long-time U.S. union activist and former Executive Board Member of the United Auto Workers union.  He was a founder of the UAW New Directions Movement. This essay is based on a talk presented by Jerry Tucker at SW Labor Studies Assoc .Conference on May 6, 2005.

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