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Missouri Senate leader on the fence about 'right to work'

Tom Dempsey R. Mo Senator 02182014
Official photo

Missouri Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, says he has yet to take a position on the “right-to-work’’ bill that is headed to his chamber after passing the House last week.

“I’m still looking at it,’’ Dempsey said in an interview.

He also remains skeptical that the measure — which would restrict union rights in the workplace — has enough Senate votes to override what he sees as “a certain veto’’ by Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat with close labor ties.

Dempsey’s candid observations underscore the uncertain future that the “right to work’’ bill faces, even after the House’s first-time-ever approval.

His comments also highlight the split between Missouri’s rural and suburban Republicans on the issue.

“Right to work” would bar unions and employers from requiring all employees to join a union and pay dues if a majority votes to unionize. Backers say such a law is needed to help Missouri attract businesses, especially since the state is surrounded by many “right-to-work’’ states.

Critics. who call the proposal “right to work for less,’’ say it leads to lower wages and unsafe working conditions. They say that politics is the real reason some Republicans and business groups are pressing the issue because labor often backs Democrats.

Dempsey hails from St. Charles County, which is Republican turf. But the county also is home to many union members and retirees, some of whom lean Republican on many matters — but not on “right to work.”

During the House vote last week, about two dozen Republican legislators broke ranks. They included most of the House members from St. Charles County. And at least one Republican in the state Senate — Paul Wieland of Jefferson County — campaigned last year on a pledge of opposing "right to work."

Dempsey acknowledged the dilemma that he faces. “I certainly understand the need for the creation of unions at the dawn of the Industrial Age,’’ he said, observing that unions had led to improved conditions for workers.

Dempsey added that he also understands the competitive economic pressures that Missouri faces and the need to attract and retain businesses. (Dempsey, by the way, is a businessman, spending most of his life helping to run his family’s Italian restaurant.)

All that said, the Senate leader emphasized in a telephone interview that he is committed to making sure the “right-to-work” bill has a fair shot in the Senate.

Recalls promise to 'right-to-work' supporters

Dempsey said he was fulfilling his pledge to rural Republican state senators, some of whom are strong supporters of the issue.

He recalled his message to them, when he ran for the leadership post: “Despite whatever misgivings I may have, I won’t be a barrier to the things that you care about. I won’t use my position to block it.”

Dempsey said he will be sending the House bill, which merged HB116 and HB569, to the Senate’s Small Business Committee. He suspects there are enough votes to win the panel’s approval.

If that happens, Dempsey said he will put the bill on the Senate calendar.

But he added that he expects a filibuster from the bill’s opponents, and that it would take a little-used maneuver — called “moving the previous question’’ or "PQ" — to break such a filibuster.  Dempsey didn't say whether he would support such a move, but the implication was that he would not — particularly if the veto-override votes aren’t there.

And Dempsey may end up as one of the "no'' votes. As he put it, "I've not decided what I'm going to do yet, as far as my own vote."

Dempsey, by the way, has cast tough votes before.

In 2013, he cast the crucial vote that killed a pro-gun bill that had been strongly supported by rural conservatives, but was vehemently opposed by law enforcement. In 2014, Dempsey voted for the revised version of that gun bill that now is law.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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