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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

Is Democrats' Big Tent Open To 'Right To Work' Legislation?

State Rep. Courtney Curtis, left, and St. Louis County Councilwoman Hazel Erby speak a news conference last year. Curtis is sponsoring "right to work" legislation aimed at construction unions, which he contends haven't done enough to bring minori
File photo | Rebecca Smith | St. Louis Public Radio

When it comes to having a “big tent” for its members, Missouri Democrats have talked the talk – and walked the walk. 

After all, the Missouri Democratic Party has included state lawmakers who vote against abortion rights and gun laws; such legislators have even run for state Senate and congressional seats. And the party appears poised to nominate for governor Attorney General Chris Koster, who opposes campaign donation limits.

But state Rep. Courtney Curtis may be testing his party’s permissiveness by sponsoring so-called “right to work” legislation for construction unions. Curtis says the bill is “drawing the line in the sand.”

“The question really is: Are we a big tent party or not?” Curtis, D-Berkeley, said in an interview. “If we are, then you know there is room for a person like me. But the reason I’m doing it is because one of the other tenets of the party is equality and fighting for it.”

Curtis introduced a bill and a constitutional amendment late last month that would, among other things, no longer make paying dues to a construction union a condition of employment. While it’s not unusual for lawmakers to propose “right to work” legislation, it is for a Democrat like Curtis to sponsor such a measure – especially since organized labor is such a mainstay in the Missouri Democratic Party.

Curtis’ bill appears to be an offshoot of the lingering frustration between African-American political leaders and labor unions in the St. Louis area. Last year saw fierce – and often hostile – battles on the St. Louis County Council over legislation to expand the availability of contracts to minorities and women.

During that debate, Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, and then-St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley contended it was difficult for African-Americans and women to break into the building trades. Curtis emphasized his bill is “not about spilt milk. It’s about opportunities going forward.” 

But he minced no words about the bill’s desired impact: “It would hopefully cripple the building trades.”

“It is a 'right-to-work' bill. But I’m calling it Workforce Opportunity Improvement,” Curtis said. For "minorities within the unions that aren’t getting a fair shake, (it) would give them better opportunities potentially. And for the individuals that are minorities outside of unions, it would give them better opportunities to participate in the workforce. They currently don’t have that.”

Cool reception

Labor's reaction to Curtis' bill? No surprises there. 

House Minority Leader Jake Hummel, D-St. Louis, is no fan of Curtis' bill.
Credit Tim Bommel, House Communications
House Minority Leader Jake Hummel, D-St. Louis, is no fan of Curtis' bill.

“Labor is up in arms about it. [Construction unions are] already starting their marketing campaign that if this happens to us, it’s going to happen to everybody else,” Curtis said. “They’re circling the wagon if you will. The members? Some members get it because they know that historically the building trades haven’t been receptive to inclusion. You won’t get anybody to say that on the record, but that’s the same thing for union members.”

Critics of Curtis’ bill include House Minority Leader Jake Hummel, a St. Louis Democrat, the secretary-treasurer for the Missouri AFL-CIO and a union electrician:  “I am against it.”

“ 'Right-to-work' laws basically create a freeloader system where union members have to pay and subsidize  the members that are not paying union dues,” Hummel said. “They still get the same benefits, they still get the same representation. According to federal law, labor unions have to bargain collectively and advocate for those people even if they’re not paying union dues. I think that’s unfair.”

St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger, who cultivated organized labor support to win his primary and general elections last year, said of Curtis’ legislation: “Frankly it didn’t make any sense to me whatsoever.” He said other “right to work” states saw wages drop after the policy was implemented.  

St. Louis County Executive-elect Steve Stenger said his transition into his new office is going much more smoothly than last week.
Credit Rebecca Smith | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger's primary and general election bids were greatly assisted by members of organized labor. He says Curtis' bill "doesn't make any sense."

“With respect to his particular bill, I think his bill is unconstitutional that it singles out a particular group of labor,” Stenger said. “I don’t think it has any hope of passage at all. But it would have a negative economic impact.”

Stenger also didn’t think that Curtis’ bill illustrates the need for bridge building between labor and minorities. Along with other black Democrats, Curtis was part of the Fannie Lou Hamer Coalition, which backed state Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, instead of Stenger.

“I can tell you my office is open to everyone,” Stenger said. “And I’ve met with people who were part of the Fannie Lou Hamer group. We’ve talked about why they did what they did. And I’ve talked about why I’ve done what I’ve done. I think I’ve had a meeting of the minds with a number of them. And we’ll continue to do that. My door’s open.”

Bring it on!

After defeating Doug Clemens by nearly 10 percentage points in a 2012 Democratic primary, Curtis didn’t have an opponent in last year’s election.

But picking a fight with organized labor may stoke primary opposition next year. His district includes Berkeley, Ferguson and Hazelwood – cities where pockets of union members reside.

But Curtis said he’s not worried.

"With all of the pending projects, things aren’t getting better for minorities in terms of opportunities or access to opportunities," said Curtis. "Now is the time to have the fight. Either we’re for equality or we’re not. But if we’re for equality, then we need to hold everybody accountable to people who claim the banner of Democratic Party.”

St. Louis Public Radio's Marshall Griffin contributed information to his story.

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.