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Missouri Democrats Solidly Against 'Right To Work,' Less So Regarding 'Right To Farm'

Jo Mannies/St. Louis Public Radio

HANNIBAL, Mo. --The banners, the stickers and the rhetoric at this weekend’s Democrat Days made one thing clear:

When it comes to “right to work,’’ Missouri Democratic activists and politicians are solidly against it. 

“Right to work” – dubbed “right to work for less’’ by critics – would bar unions and employers from requiring all workers to pay union dues or a service fee if a majority votes to join a union. Conservatives and some business groups contend that "right to work" protects workers from unfair union pressure, and cite the fact that 24 states now have "right to work'' provisions, including the once-strong labor states of Indiana and Michigan.

Credit Jo Mannies/St. Louis Public Radio
Opposition to proposed "right to work'' legislation was very strong at Missouri Democrat Days

The Missouri House is considering several “right to work’’ proposals, an issue strongly supported by House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka. Some proposals would put the policy into effect, while at least one would place the issue before voters.

Dan Dildine, a retired judge now running for the Missouri House, says the only catch is getting the Democratic message out to enough rural voters. He’s confident the public would share the Democratic opposition “if they understood the 'right-to-work' law and understood how that would lower average earnings of Missourians across the state and not just affect union membership.”

Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander reaffirmed his opposition at the Saturday night banquet, as did the unions hosting hospitality suites at the Hannibal Inn, where the regional Democratic gathering was held.

Some Democrats privately predicted that labor might be energized if “right to work” was put on the fall ballot, while others said the outcome might be too close to call. Democrats were outspoken in their pleasure that unions have hired a prominent Republican, former House Speaker Steve Tilley, to lobby against "right to work."

Split on 'right to farm'

But the party's solid stance appears to dissipate when it comes to another issue that definitely will be on the November ballot: a measure that backers call “right to farm.”

Missouri Republicans at their statewide Lincoln Days two weeks ago predicted that the proposed constitutional amendment would help get out the rural GOP vote in the fall.

The simply worded proposal states that “the right of farmers and ranchers to engage in farming and ranching practices shall be forever guaranteed in this state.”

State Rep. Ed Schieffer, D-Troy and now a candidate for the state Senate, said he supports the amendment, which has been endorsed by the Missouri Farm Bureau and several other agricultural groups, including Missouri Farmers Care.

But former state Sen. Wes Shoemyer, D-Clarence, said that the amendment is so broadly worded that it would primarily help corporate farms kill off existing state regulations.

Shoemyer received strong applause when he addressed fellow Democrats at the Saturday night banquet. But others sat there silently, implying a cooler reception.

Shoemyer noted that a Chinese company recently purchased Smithfield Foods Inc., which has a large hog operation in Missouri. The sale came last year after the Missouri General Assembly overrode Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of a bill to allow foreign ownership of up to 1 percent of Missouri farmland.

Shoemyer, a farmer, has set up a political action committee, called “Missouri’s Food for America,” to fight off the “right to farm’’ proposal. He says some environmentalist, food-safety and animal rights groups – including the Human Society of the United States – are aligning with his PAC.

Credit Jo Mannies/St. Louis Public Radio
Former state Sen. Wes Shoemyer, left, and state Rep. Ed Schieffer are both Democrats, but on opposing sides on the "Right to Farm'' proposal.

Backers of “right to farm” said that the amendment would guard against another Proposition B, a ballot measure in 2010 that imposed restrictions on dog breeders. But Shoemyer noted that the General Assembly eased the Prop B restrictions in 2011 and was able to do so because the measure was not a constitutional amendment.

If “right to farm’’ passes as an amendment,he said, the state will have little recourse if the wording is determined by the courts to have broader implications than backers may have intended.

Schieffer said in an interview that he's confident that agriculture groups wouldn't support the proposal if it were as flawed as critics contend.

In any event, Shoemyer acknowledged that it had been awkward sitting next to Schieffer at the banquet.  Before addressing the crowd, Shoemyer quipped that he had told Schieffer, “Pay attention.”

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