From July 27th to 31st, two of our newly-elected Executive Board Members—Agnes Braga, a Speech-Language Pathology Assistant at LAUSD and Toi Jackson, a Special Education Assistant at LAUSD—volunteered to join a boots-on-the-ground fight in the deep-red state of Missouri to beat back Proposition A. The ballot measure—had it passed—would have made Missouri a right-to-work state.
But it didn’t pass. In fact, it was crushed on Tuesday (67.3 percent of voters in opposition versus 32.7 in support) due in large part to the state-wide effort Toi and Agnes were part of to educate voters on right-to-work and its negative impact on worker rights, jobs and the economy. This victory comes in a state that Trump carried in the 2016 Presidential Primaries.
Take note: Union members taking organized action was a crucial factor in this victory over anti-union, anti-worker politics, politicians and their big-money donors. This is how we resist and become stronger.
How did you both end up being part of this fight?
Agnes: Well, Local 99 was approached by the LA County Fed (LA County Federation of Labor) asking for volunteers to join the canvassing effort in Missouri. I think as board members, we need to set an example for others to follow, so I was on board with it.
Toi: I heard the unions out there needed more boots on the ground to fight against this prop, so I was like “Yeah, I need to be there to support my union sisters and brothers!”
A lot of eyes were on the outcome of Prop A. How did it feel to be involved in a fight with national significance and in a time when organized labor has been under escalating attacks by anti-union groups?
Agnes: To me, it was eye-opening. Most of the people who were part of this campaign were white, male, blue-collar, from different union chapters and locals. Some women, some veterans, some who maybe even, let’s just say…had misunderstandings about people of color. But despite our differences, we all came together to make sure Prop A did not pass. It opened my eyes to the cohesiveness among union members when it comes down to defending against something destructive to organized labor. An individual voice is not as loud as a collective voice of different people coming together as one.
Toi: Definitely. Workers need to stick together and stand by what we believe in and what matters most to us. Like, having a union on the job, having a voice. Everyone had that focus.
What did you do out there? What was the day-to-day like?
Toi: We were going door-to-door talking to voters about Prop A, basically trying to help people understand what the measure meant for the state, jobs, and getting them to support a ‘no’ vote. We met every morning at Pipe Fitters Local 533, picked up literature, our route sheets, and headed out in teams to whatever precinct we got. It was my first time doing voter canvassing, so I felt outside my comfort zone in some places. There were fears I had to overcome of walking in neighborhoods where it wasn’t necessarily unsafe, but where people would stand there and stare at us as if we didn’t belong there. And I’m talking about white and black people doing the staring, depending on who I was partnered with.
How did you overcome this discomfort?
Toi: By just remembering what I was doing was important and focusing on the goal. It was also the relationship I had with my group, the trust you have with each other that helped.
Agnes: It was my first time, too. For my team, it was two retired members as a pair, and I was paired with someone younger. We covered our own streets, while the other two covered other streets. So there was a lot of strategizing on how to best canvas our area. Individually, going into some of these neighborhoods to knock on a complete stranger’s door, I’d be thinking to myself, “Okay, get over your fear…it doesn’t look safe, but it’s okay. I don’t know where I am, I don’t remember how to get back, but I’ll figure this out.” If they weren’t home, we’d leave literature on their door. If they were and didn’t know what Prop A was about, we’d talk to them about it. I met one union member who didn’t agree with the political endorsement decisions made by her fellow members. I told her that this was bigger than unions and politicians.
How about you Toi? What were the thoughts of people you spoke to on right-to-work?
Surprisingly, there were a lot of opponents of Prop A. Some people were undecided. And there were some people who were totally for it. There was one guy who was the husband of the person we were there to speak to. He knew we weren’t trying to speak with him and was about to close the door, but then he stopped us and wanted to know what this was about. When we told him, he went off on a rant, saying “union workers are lazy”, “if you get fired from your job, that’s just what it is and it happens every day and you shouldn’t fight about it”, “people who are in a union don’t work as hard as I do.” He told us he was a business owner and thought people should vote ‘yes’ on Prop A because, in his mind, unions aren’t needed. I told him I’m in a union and I work very hard. He was sort of taken aback by that, like he didn’t expect to be called out on these false notions by an actual union member standing right in front of him. It was a challenge to get people like him, who are just totally against unions, to understand why right-to-work is bad for everyone.
It sounds like he’s just toeing the line of anti-union groups and their messaging to paint unions and union workers as bad.
Definitely. People who were undecided were more receptive and could understand how if Prop A passed, it would weaken unions and the voice of workers to fight back against cuts and other threats.
The overwhelming rejection of Prop A was a bipartisan vote. Why do you think Republican voters rejected right-to-work despite it being supported by pro-business groups, business-friendly Republican lawmakers and a Republican Governor?
Agnes: This is bigger than party affiliation. This is about making sure workers have a voice in the workplace, have good benefits, and making sure it stays that way, and that they have a means to raise their wages to match the cost of living. Because if Prop A passed, it would hurt the power of workers to build a better future. Things might even go backwards. And I think whatever political leaning, people understood that.
What do you think accounts for the landslide victory on No on Prop A?
Agnes: I think because there was a strong union presence. The workers I met there were strong union members and there was high participation in canvassing. And I think voters could relate to these members, especially because they all live in the same cities and communities. They were able to connect with people. “Look, I live in this city, I live in this state, and I don’t agree with this.” Republican, Democrat…it doesn’t matter.
Toi: Regardless of political affiliation, most people could agree they want wages to go up, not down. Health care benefits get better, not worse. Workplace safety gets better, not worse. Right-to-work states have some of the lowest minimum wages in the country. Mississippi, which has been right-to-work for decades, doesn’t even have a minimum wage! With or without a union, I think that’s what they also understood…the economics of this and how it would affect them and their families.
This was a big victory for unions and follows the trend of union members rising up this year in red and right-to-work states—we’re talking about those teacher strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona. What do you think this means for the labor movement going forward?
Toi: I think moving forward, we’re going to see increased unity among workers. All of us coming together to beat back this attack just proved how strong we all are in unity. We have each other’s backs and it’s this relationship that empowers us. If anything, we’re going to get stronger and get better and better at defending against these attacks. Standing together, we can all overcome and grow.
Agnes: What people need to understand is that because of the Janus [vs AFSCME] decision, this is bigger than our locals and our egos. Everyone’s future is at stake. What I realized while canvassing with members from other union chapters and locals is that working together is better than working by yourself, because we all have the same goal and it’s bigger than each one of us alone. Whatever little problems we’re going through, it’s bigger than that. And we have to make sure future generations have it better than us right now. We can’t go back to how it was. Why would you want to do that? If wages go back down while cost of living keeps going up, will you really have enough to support your family? The feeling in Missouri was that if Prop A passed there, it was going to spread to California and so we needed to stop it right there and then.