"A Little Bad Grammar Will Not Annul" – Missouri Unions Move Ahead with Referendum Petition to Revoke Right-to-Work

Missouri was set to become a right-to-work state on August 28, 2017. However, unions have continued efforts to prevent the implementation of Senate Bill 19 (“SB 19”), Missouri’s right-to-work bill. Article III, Section 52 of the Missouri Constitution allows the public to petition for a referendum to put key issues before Missouri voters on the November 2018 ballot. The president of the Missouri AFL-CIO intends to use a referendum petition to halt SB 19.

In February 2017, the union submitted a sample referendum petition to the Secretary of State, seeking to refer SB 19 to Missouri voters for approval or rejection. The Secretary of State approved the petition and then prepared a summary statement for the referendum. The summary statement’s language displeased a few “sticklers” for grammar. In Stickler et al. v. Ashcroft and Louis, the respondents argued that the summary statement contained poor word choice, informal language, and subject-verb disagreement that inadequately identified SB 19’s effect. According to Respondent Stickler, these grammatical errors rendered the Secretary of State’s summary statement improperly, unfairly, and insufficiently constructed and potentially misleading to the Missouri public.

On July 28, 2017, the court of appeals held that bad grammar was not enough to invalidate the summary statement for the union’s referendum petition. Instead, the key question was whether the summary statement contained an “impartial, intelligible, and accurate summary of the referendum’s central purpose and effects.” The court of appeals further held that the original summary statement issued by the Secretary of State met these criteria and reversed the trial court’s re-wording of the summary statement.

The ruling permits union efforts to prevent Missouri from becoming a right-to-work state to continue. The union must now secure 100,126 valid signatures, or signatures from 5% of legal voters in six of the eight Missouri Congressional districts before August 28, 2017. If the union secures these signatures before the deadline, SB 19’s enactment will be suspended until Missouri votes in the November 2018 election. If the union’s referendum is affirmed by Missouri voters during the election, SB 19 would have been revoked and right-to-work rejected by the people.

But the union has more than one arrow in its quiver.  In November 2016, the union submitted 10 separate initiative petitions to the Secretary of State, each seeking to amend Article I, Section 29 of the Missouri Constitution to prevent the enactment of right-to-work legislation.  If Missouri voters were to approve a constitutional amendment, the state constitution would supersede the legislature’s conflicting statute.  Any such repeal by constitutional amendment would prevent further legislative efforts to move Missouri towards right-to-work status. That is because only a subsequent constitutional amendment approved by Missouri voters can repeal a successful ballot initiative vote. However, this could only occur in the next general election, thereby further delaying right-to-work status in Missouri.

We will continue to monitor this issue and report on any significant developments. 

Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.