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TV ads open summer battle over fate of right-to-work legislation

Marshall Griffin/St. Louis Public Radio

Although Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon already has declared he’ll veto an anti-union bill known as “right to work,’’ a labor coalition has launcheda TV ad campaign anyway.

The ad blitz is likely just the first salvo in what could be a summer-long effort by both sides to sway the public and politicians on the bill, which would bar employers and unions from requiring all workers in a bargaining unit to pay dues.

The labor coalition is called “Preserve Middle-Class Missouri.” It has been running ads since last Tuesday on broadcast stations around the state – with a primary focus on Kansas City and St. Louis, the state’s two biggest media markets.

Coalition president David Cook said the adwill continue to run “until such time as the governor vetoes the bill.”

The group then plans to begin airing a different ad directed at Missouri legislators, who will meet in September to attempt any overrides of Nixon’s vetoes, including the right-to-work bill.

Among other things, the coalition’s ad campaign centers on its belief that a right-to-work law in Missouri would increase the economic disparity between the wealthy and everybody else, including the middle class, by driving down wages.

The coalition was organized as a 501C4,an IRS classification that means the group doesn’t have to report its donors or how much it has raised to the Missouri Ethics Commission, which monitors campaign-related finances.

Cook also is president of Local 655 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, based in St. Louis.  He said the coalition is largely made up of union members and retirees, but he declined to be more specific. He also declined to say how much had been raised or spent on the TV ads.

“We have a big enough budget so we’re sure people will see our commercials,’’ Cook said.

The group’s aim, he added, is “to communicate and educate the public about what’s going on in the legislature.”

Right-to-work calls flood Nixon’s office

Backers of a right-to-work law say it would make Missouri more business-friendly and more competitive with some other nearby states that already have such a law. Unions contend the measure would lead to lower wages and fewer worker benefits, and also would improperly inject the government in union-business negotiations.

The pro-union ad currently airing on TV tells viewers to call Nixon’s office to underscore their opposition to “right to work.” So far, it’s had some effect.

The governor’s staff reported Monday that their office received 94 emails and 747 phone calls last week about right to work. All but one phone call were in opposition to the bill.

Those communications represent only a fraction of the right-to-work missives the governor’s office has received this year. Since Jan. 1, a spokeswoman said, the governor’s office has received 1,903 emails and 3,210 phone calls regarding right to work. All but 23 were in opposition.

One of the reasons for the skewed communications with Nixon’s office may be that the governor, a Democrat, has long been an outspoken opponent of right to work. But even so, labor and its allies recognize that Nixon is the only remaining safeguard to block a right-to-work law.

For the first time ever, the Missouri House and Senate – both controlled by Republicans – passed a bill this session to make Missouri the nation’s 26th “right to work” state. The approval margins were below the numbers needed to override the expected Nixon veto, but some in both camps believe those numbers could change as the public campaigns heat up.

Supporters holding fire – for now

The bill is supported by some business and conservative groups, including the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity. So far, supporters haven’t begun waging a public campaign in favor of the right-to-work bill. But even labor expects that to change once Nixon vetoes the bill and attention shifts to the General Assembly for an attempted override.

Patrick Werner, state director for Americans for Prosperity, called right to work "just one issue in our long-term policy agenda called Path to Prosperity."

“The goal of increased worker freedoms and moving toward a statewide economic climate that encourages growth by creating new jobs in economic depressed parts of the state is a positive step but just one piece of the policy puzzle when it comes to creating a long-term climate of economic growth,” he said.

Werner declined to say how active his group may be in lobbying legislators, or the public, later this summer. But based on supporters’ actions in other states, Cook says that unions expect their rivals to spend a lot of money on ads this summer to promote overriding the governor’s veto and putting a right-to-work law in place.

That’s why, the union leader added, his side’s coalition is spending money on ads now.

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