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Only scope and timing of Missouri's expected right-to-work law is in question

Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, R-Joplin, was one of the biggest proponents of using the previous question to pass "right to work."
Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

Missouri will become a right-to-work state. The chief question is how soon the General Assembly will put a version of the anti-union measure on the desk of soon-to-be Gov. Eric Greitens.

The other unknown is what particular form of “right to work’’ Missouri’s new law will take.

Under "right to work," unions and employers cannot require all workers in a bargaining unit to pay dues or fees. Although some versions of right to work say a worker cannot be required to join a union, federal law has barred such a requirement for a long time.

Backers say right to work will attract more business to Missouri, while critics -- who dub the law "rigfht to work for less'' -- say it will curb the rights of workers and lower pay.

But that debate is over with Greitens’ victory on Nov. 8 over his Democratic rival, outgoing Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, who had the strong backing of many labor groups.

Top state labor leaders concede that point. “Clearly, we’re disappointed with what happened in the last election,’’ said state AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Jake Hummel, who also is a Democratic state senator-elect from St. Louis. “We’ll have to deal with what comes.”

“All we’re going to be able to do now is try to get as many concessions as possible,’’ Hummel added. And he acknowledges that right-to-work backers may not be willing to give any ground.

Nevada a rare bright spot for unions

But a Washington University professor who has studied the effect of right-to-work laws for more than a decade said that its restrictions don’t have to be devastating for unions, if they adapt.

“Right to work certainly does not help organized labor, ‘’ said Jake Rosenfeld, an associate professor of sociology. “But it need not spell the end of organized labor.”

Rosenfeld pointed to Nevada, a right-to-work state, where certain unions – notably the 57,000-member Culinary Union – have become a powerful professional and political force.

Close to 90 percent of the Culinary Union’s members voluntarily pay dues, among the highest percentage in the nation, Rosenfeld said.

How does the union have success? The professor points to “strong, charismatic leaders who make clear (to members) every day what the union is providing for them.”

Among other things, Rosenfeld takes note of the union’s strong job-training programs, which make its members more employable. The Culinary Union is seen as a key reason Nevada – while officially a swing state -- elected a Democratic U.S. senator in November and went for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

Details up in the air for Missouri’s 'right to work' law

So far, at least three right-to-work bills have been prefiled in the Missouri House and one in the Senate.

Some, such as the Senate version (SB19), flatly state that any business-union contract that requires fees from all workers in a bargaining unit will be “unlawful, null and void and of no legal effect.”

At least one of the versions in the House (HB42) specifically applies only to new business-union contracts or to “renewal or extension of any existing collective bargaining agreement.”

The Missouri Chamber of Commerce, a chief backer of “right to work,’’ has yet to publicly indicate a preference to any specific version.

Hummel with the AFL-CIO predicts that there may be a court fight over any right-to-work law, such as the Senate version that would appear to apply to existing contracts. That could include renewals of existing contracts.

“I don’t know if the state can legally break a contract between two private parties,’’ Hummel said. “I can’t imagine that it’s legal to retroactively go in and get rid of contracts between private parties.”

None of the Missouri right-to-work bills would appear to apply to public employees, such as teachers and law enforcement, who already cannot require all members to pay dues, Hummel said.

Public employees target of "paycheck protection" bills

Separate measures, dubbed “paycheck protection,’’ also have been introduced that apply specifically to public-employee unions or associations. Those proposed laws would require that the groups get written approval each year from every member before dues or fees can be deducted from their paychecks.

Such bills also are expected to get swift action in the General Assembly, because Republican leaders expect Greitens to support them as well.

Meanwhile, Rosenfeld at Washington University emphasizes that it will be up to Missouri’s labor movement to determine how devastating the anti-union measures – especially right to work -- will be.

“If they interpret the passage of this law, which looks likely, as devastating, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy,” the professor said. “If you just see passage as a reason to give up. But it need not.”

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