Defeat of Missouri’s 1978 RTW initiative could provide road map for today’s struggle

RTW 1978
CELEBRATING VICTORY over Missouri’s 1978 right-to-work initiative are (front row, from left) are Teamsters Ed Dorsey (deceased), St. Louis Building Trades Council Executive Secretary-Treasurer and Labor Co-Chairman of St. Louis’ PRIDE labor-management group Dick Mantia (deceased), St. Louis Labor Council President Bob Kelley and Missouri AFL-CIO President Jim Meyers (deceased). – Labor Tribune file photo

Labor Law Breakfast series takes a look back at the historic victory

By Sheri Gassaway

There are lessons to be learned from the defeat of Missouri’s 1978 right-to-work Initiative.

Rob Russell, labor education specialist with the University of Missouri Extension St. Louis County, discussed the 1978 initiative and at the Jan. 14 Labor Law Breakfast. Russell is coordinator of the monthly breakfast series.


The 1978 constitutional amendment, proposed by the Freedom to Work Committee, failed by a 60-to-40 margin with 948,387 voting against the initiative and 631,829 voting in favor of it.

“The election was declared a disaster by the GOP, Russell said. “Initial polling in August that year favored the initiative by a 2-to-1 margin, and only 52 percent of union workers were opposed to it.”

According to a 1996 study by Gilbert J. Gall, the anti-right-to-work vote seemed centered in the union membership/nexus, and it drew important support from the broader non-unionized working class, small rural farmers and supporters of liberal political ideology.

The only other statewide election on ballot at the time was for state auditor, and former Gov. Warren Hearnes (D) lost to James Antonio (R) by 52-to-48 margin.

There were 27 elections for statewide office from 1970 to 1982, Russell said. Eight of the 27 had margins similar or larger to 1978 right-to-work referendum, and Democrats won five of the eight elections.

The anti-right-to-work vote was not explicitly associated with partisan votes at the time, Russell said. The anti-Right-to-Work campaign tapped into a somewhat different coalition of counties and voters.

Turnout was a key to the victory, he said, and that was helped by a lack of other marquee statewide races.


Partisan elections provide only a limited guide as to what could happen in a non-partisan election, Russell said.

Some of the same elements still persist in Missouri, Russell said but labor’s statewide reach has declined.

Union membership in Missouri was about 219,000 in 2013, he said, down from about 375,000 in 1983. Union density decreased from about 20 percent to about 10 percent in the same period.

Other races on the ballot could also draw voters out, Russell said, but the margin of anti-right-to-work votes would likely be smaller.


The Labor Law Series is sponsored by the University of Missouri Extension St. Louis County. It is held on the second Wednesday of each month at IBEW Local 1439 Hall, 212 59th St. in St. Louis.

February’s guest speakers include Cindy Flynn and Neale K. Sutcliff from the National Labor Relations Board St. Louis Office. The cost is $15 per person. To register, contact Russell at


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