CHEYENNE —An old friend and Democratic party activist recently demanded to know why she hears nothing any more about the fight to repeal right-to-work. Her thinking is that RTW has strangled the Democratic Party and hurt the future of all Wyoming working people.
I told her the idea of repeal is dead and dead again. The number of Democrats in the Legislature is perhaps at a historic low at a time when the national mood is anti-union.
I failed at the time to mention the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, which seems to extend right-to-work to all states so that non-union members could share in the benefits of union negotiations without being required to pay union dues.
In their decision handed down in June —Janus v. AFSCME — the justices ruled that it is unconstitutional to require non-consenting employees to pay fees to a union.
That ruling, I thought, screwed the unions forevermore. (Full disclosure: I come from a strong union family —railroaders and factory workers.) My friend grumbled and dropped the topic.
Then this week we learn that the State of Missouri, through a referendum ballot, voted to repeal a RTW law passed by the Legislature earlier this year. Missouri was be the 28th state to adopt RTW. The voting was two-to-one for repeal.
Imagine. The unions hope the decision takes some steam out of the nationwide right-wing campaign to expand RTW. The AFL-CIO called the results “historic.” The anti-RTW campaign outspent the “yes” group eight-to-one, published reports said. Labor groups also worked door-to-door with their message that RTW would drive down wages and working conditions for everyone.
This seems like a game-changer. It may be, but not for the Republican stronghold that is Wyoming.
I could not reach the spokesman for the Wyoming AFL-CIO for comment who would probably disagree. Wyoming historian Phil Roberts said timing for the RTW opponents in Missouri was good because the unions there are strong.
In Wyoming, the timing was bad. The unions were weak when the anti-union forces pushed RTW through the Legislature in 1963.
For 20 years, between 1935 and 1955, Wyoming unions were strong and allied, said Roberts said, an authority on Wyoming union history. Many union members worked for the Union Pacific Railroad and in the coal mines that fed the UP engines. A major blow came in 1955-56 when the UP Railroad switched to diesel to fuel those engines. Oil and gas development came into play to fill the jobs gap but was a notable anti-union industry, except for the refineries, Roberts said.
Because of all of these developments, the unions were in a weakened condition when the push came for a RTW law. The law passed in 1963 and further weakened the unions. It was, as the unions claimed, a stake in the heart.
RTW was and is an emotional economic issue. The attempt to repeal that law in 1965 was so fraught with tension that Gov. Cliff Hansen ordered the National Guard to stand by in the basement of the Capitol Building when the vote was taken. Repeal failed. No riots ensued.
The Democratic Party always has been more or less welded to unions. RTW repeal, Robert said, still is in the Democratic party platform. It was attempted again in the mid-70s’ and failed, again.
The Democrats, when they had 11 votes in the Senate, compared to four today, would occasionally try futilely to get it to the floor. Although no effort for repeal has surfaced in a decade or more, RTW remains an inviolate plank in the Democratic party platform.
It has been as much of an albatross for the Democrats as the move for a four-year college at Casper at one time was for the Natrona Country Republican legislators who were the leaders in the Legislature.
The effect of the Missouri story in Wyoming?
The only effect will be “almost anachronistic,” Roberts said — a relic from the past.
It will however, encourage a lot of discussion.