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Why The General Assembly Is Battling Over Right To Work

Marshall Griffin/St. Louis Public Radio

The first full week of the Missouri’s General Assembly is officially underway, and already the focus has shifted away from the expected topics – tax cuts and Medicaid expansion – and landed smack dab in the midst of a potentially bruising battle over labor rights.

The fight offers the potential of overshadowing other legislative issues for weeks, if not months.

Both sides admit that there are key reasons why “right to work’’ – which  centers on who must pay union dues – has come up so quickly.

The debate is primarily over what those reasons are.

Missouri House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, says this session is his last chance to advance his longstanding cause of “worker freedom and choice” before term limits force him to leave his post and the Missouri House.

“I am very concerned that Missouri is being left behind in the Midwest,’’ Jones said, citing the fact that six of Missouri’s border states have adopted “right to work” laws. “It is an economic growth policy that we need to debate here.”

Under “right to work,’’ unions and employers would be barred from requiring all workers to pay union dues if a majority votes to organize.  Twenty-four states have adopted the law – including the longstanding pro-labor states of Indiana and Michigan – and bills were introduced last year in at least 21 other states, according to the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

“We’ve always been for this,’’ said Dan Mehan, president and chief executive of the Missouri Chamber.

Jones maintains that’s also true of many Republican legislators. “There is a strong majority of my caucus that has wanted to have this debate for many years,”  Jones said. “They see how Missouri is lagging behind. If we don’t enact some pro-growth, pro-jobs, pro-business policies, we’re going to be left behind as other Midwest states move ahead.”

He cited the state’s recent bid to attract Boeing’s commercial-aircraft business as an example of how Missouri might have fared better in the multi-state jockeying.  Boeing opted to keep that production at its union plants in Washington state, but Jones noted that union workers agreed to some concessions to protect their jobs.

Credit Marshall Griffin/St. Louis Public Radio
House Speaker Tim Jones

Jones said he wants to get the issue before the Missouri House early to boost its chances of getting approved. Early House passage would send the measure to the Senate, where all sides agree the political terrain will be tougher because of the likelihood of a Democratic filibuster.

Is 2016 looming over 'right to work' debate?

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, among others, testified at this week's House hearing that a "right to work'' law would lead to lower wages, not necessarily more jobs.

Bob Soutier, head of the Greater St. Louis Labor Council, says that politics – not policy – is the driving force behind the latest debate.

“There are wealthy funders of both Tim Jones and the Republican Party that are attempting to have a hand in Missouri politics and bring less skilled, less qualified workers to this state,” the labor leader said.

Others, including some in the GOP camp, say publicly or privately that Jones’ decision to launch his “right to work’’ drive early – catching even some allies off guard -- was aimed, in part, at bolstering his likely 2016 bid for Missouri attorney general.

Two of Jones’ likely Republican rivals are in the state Senate: Kurt Schaefer of Columbia, Mo., and Eric Schmitt of Glendale. “They don’t want to vote on this,’’ said one Jefferson City-based activist. “If Jones gets this through the House, it sends a message to the donor community – ‘I’m your guy.’ ”

Said Democratic consultant Mike Kelley: "This is a sad example of people introducing legislation to appease donors."

Jones denied that his possible 2016 candidacy has anything to do with his quest for an early "right to work" fight. "Right now, I'm focused on finishing up my last year in the House,'' he said.

Meanwhile, Kelley contended that many of the state's largest employers, most of whom are unionized, aren't keen on a "right-to-work" fight.

"The Missouri Chamber of Commerce is nothing but an arm of the Republican Party,'' Kelley said. "Where's BJC? Where's Boeing? Where's the automakers? Deafening silence."

The bulk of the pro-“right-to-work” bills introduced in the General Assembly are straight-up bans on closed-union shops. But at least one would put the issue before Missouri voters – an approach already publicly backed by Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, a Republican who predicts the issue will make this fall's ballot.

The Missouri Chamber's Mehan says that the bills that would simply put “right to work’’ in place likely have no chance of becoming law. Although Republicans have large majorities in both chambers, Mehan is pessimistic that enough votes could be mustered to outmanuever Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat with strong labor support.

“It’s pretty clear that the governor would veto it,’’ Mehan said. “With Gov. Nixon’s opposition, the way to succeed’’ would be to put the “right-to-work” issue on the ballot.

Nixon’s signature isn’t needed to put an issue on the ballot, which is why the Republican-led General Assembly has taken that approach on several other matters.  However,this week’s hearingwas on a bill – HB 1099 -- that would directly put “right to work’’ in place.

George Connor, head of the political science department at Missouri State University, questions whether such a bill would pass constitutional muster because Missouri’s constitution has provisions that he says specifically give workers the right to organize.

But Connor also believes that putting the right-to-work issue on the ballot may be preferable even to supportive legislators. “It’s the gutless way out,’’ the professor said, by shifting the decision to Missouri voters.

In 1978, Missouri voters rejected a ballot proposal to establish “right to work.’’  The Missouri Chamber is more optimistic about a ballot measure’s chances today because the state’s percentage of unionized workers has dropped by almost half in the last 25 years.

According to the chamber’s figures, about 15.5 percent of the state’s workforce was unionized in 1989, compared to 8.9 percent now.

When teachers and union retirees are included, Soutier says, the figure is higher.  State labor officials say that about a third of Missouri voters live in households with a union member, a union retiree or a teacher.

Democratic consultant Mike Kelley warned that Republicans need to read up on Missouri’s past before heading to the ballot. “This is a state that has always supported the rights of workers,’’ Kelley said. "If you do not understand history, you are doomed to repeat it."

Connor predicts that a ballot fight would pull in money and manpower from around the country.  National labor leaders and conservative groups, including Americans for Prosperity, already have been weighing in with Tweets and press releases since Monday’s right-to-work hearing in Jefferson City.

Connor predicts that Republicans and Democrats might see a right-to-work fight on the November ballot as a way to ramp up enthusiasm among rank-and-file supporters. But there’s also risk, since one side would lose once the ballots are counted.

“You’re going to see it all if it gets on the ballot,’’ Connor said. “Once again, it’s the nationalization of Missouri politics.”

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.