The origins of right-to-work in Missouri
Earlier this year, the Missouri General Assembly passed a right-to-work bill that was signed into law by Gov. Eric Greitens. The whole process took less than five weeks — lightning speed in legislative terms.
However, what seemed like a swift passage actually ended what was likely one of the longest advocacy campaigns in state history.
As reported in the archives of this magazine, the push for right-to-work in Missouri started 65 years ago, in 1952. At the time, 13 states had already adopted right-to-work laws, which give workers the ability to choose whether they join a union.
This concept was gaining traction around the country. By the end of the 1950s, six additional states would pass right-to-work laws.
With this as the backdrop, the members of the Missouri Chamber’s Labor Committee met in Jefferson City on Sept. 12, 1952, and called for a poll to determine whether Missouri Chamber members supported right-to-work.
The December 1952 issue of Missouri Business reported that 961 Missouri Chamber members responded to the poll, with 937 of those supporting right-to-work. Only 13 members said they opposed the legislation, and 11 surveys came back with no opinion.
With the poll showing “overwhelming approval of right-to-work legislation in Missouri,” the Missouri Chamber’s board of directors voted to endorse a push to bring the law to Missouri (the meeting is pictured at the top of this article).
Soon, the 1953 legislative session began and Rep. C.D. Hamilton, a Democrat from Ralls County, sponsored right-to-work in House Bill 279. The House Labor Committee held two hearings on right-to-work, listening to testimony from both sides of the issue.
A June 1953 article in Missouri Business noted that lawmakers were likely impressed by the many letters they received from right-to-work supporters, “including union members, who vividly described how compulsory membership requirements violate their personal rights.”
However, the committee ultimately rejected right-to-work after a “horde of some 200 labor organization representatives … descended on the capitol in opposition to the right-to-work bill … in marked contrast to the handful of businessmen who stood up to be counted at the hearings,” according to the article.
Despite the setback, the Missouri Chamber continued to push for right-to-work. It believed the bill would fare better if legislators didn’t have to cast their votes in public.
“If the legislators could have voted secretly on the right to work, there is evidence it would have passed by a wide margin,” according to an article about the failure to pass House Bill 279.
The following year saw no further progress on right-to-work.
So, soon after the 1954 legislative session ended, the Missouri Chamber announced a new strategy. In July of that year, it began running advertisements in newspapers across the state calling for lawmakers to put right-to-work on the statewide ballot, where everyone would be able to cast their vote in secret.
The full-page advertisements ran under the headline “Let the people decide right-to-work.” The combined circulation of the campaign was reported as being more than 2 million. The advertisement included a coupon asking Missourians to write back and donate to the cause.
The August 1954 issue of this magazine noted that the coupons “came back in early mails from all parts of the state — city and rural alike — and representing about every conceivable occupation. It showed a definite awareness of the importance of the problem and a positive desire to do something about it.”
The article also noted that “some correspondents were vehement in their opposing views. They of course have that privilege. Free expression of views should be the privilege of all Americans. That is what the State Chamber urges — opportunity for a free expression of opinion on this particular issue and a free choice with regard to the issue of right-to-work.”
That December, the Missouri Chamber brought Columbia University economist Dr. Leo Wolman to Jefferson City to speak about right-to-work during the organization’s annual meeting.
“We must go to the people of this country and ask them if they want this private power to continue to grow, to continue to strip the people of their basic rights,” Dr. Wolman said in remarks that were later transcribed and sold in booklet form. “We had better tell the people they must get busy if they don’t want these violations of fundamental rights to increase. When we lose things such as this basic issue, we lose them by default.”
When the legislature convened for the 1955 session, Rep. J.L. Wright, a Republican from Hickory County, joined Hamilton in cosponsoring House Joint and Concurrent Resolution 16 to put right-to-work on the ballot.
The House Constitutional Amendments Committee held three hearings on the bill. Proponents testified on March 20, while opponents were heard on April 13 and 19. According to one article, the Missouri Chamber was surprised at one hearing when the powerful Missouri Farmers Association joined labor groups and testified against right-to-work. A short time later, the House Constitutional Amendments Committee killed the right-to-work resolution.
But at the end of session, a headline in this magazine declared that the issue of right-to-work was “still alive.”
“Notwithstanding the defeat of the right-to-work resolution, progress has been considerable,” according to the article. “Two years ago the bill hardly caused a ripple of interest in the legislature. This year it was one of the most controversial and one of the hottest issues introduced in the session. Interest today is statewide.”
Yet it would still be more than 60 years until right-to-work would become law in the state.