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Missouri House members take big step toward passing right to work

Tim Bommel I House Communications
Rep. Holly Rehder, House bill sponsor of right to work, listens to debate over right to work on Wednesday.

(Updated January 18)  Members of the Missouri House have taken a big step toward delivering a right-to-work law to Missouri.

On Wednesday, the House initially passed state Rep. Holly Rehder’s legislation, which would bar unions and employers from requiring workers to pay dues. The Sikeston Republican’s bill, which passed 101-58, also paves the way for criminal penalties for anybody that violates the proposal.

Business groups and many Republicans have unsuccessfully tried to pass a right-to-work law for decades. But passage of Rehder’s bill appeared to become inevitable when Gov. Eric Greitens took office. 

“It’s just helping the state in an overall way,” Rehder said. “It might not touch anything in St. Louis. They might not see a big bump. But down in the Bootheel where I live, we miss jobs every year and we miss businesses every year because of not being right-to-work. [We’re] right there on that corner with Tennessee, Arkansas – and now Kentucky has passed it. I’m excited that we might see some economic development in our area.”

During Wednesday’s debate, Democrats unsuccessfully attempted to make Rehder’s bill subject to a vote of the people. That comes as some leaders of labor unions are considering circulating an initiative petition to ban right to work.

“If it’s that important for this state, which I don’t believe either, for economic development, let the people vote on it,” said state Rep. Doug Beck, D-Affton. “You know, I won’t like it but I’ll accept it.”

Rehder and other Republicans said Greitens’ victory was the true referendum on right-to-work, especially because he made clear he would sign a bill if he won. She also said labor unions were hardly enthusiastic when Republicans considered taking a right-to-work measure to the ballot a few years ago.

Rehder’s legislation needs another vote in the House before it can  go to the Senate.  

Read our original story: As Missouri’s battle over a right-to-work law heats up, both sides agree on a key point: Passage is inevitable this year.

That fact fueled the atmosphere at Tuesday’s  legislative hearing in the Missouri Capitol, which was a mixture of resignation and anger. On Wednesday, a House committee voted 8-4 to approve the proposal.

At Tuesday's hearing, a largely union-friendly crowd occasionally laughed and scoffed whenever a right-to-work supporter testified that the legislation would increase jobs and improve Missouri’s economy.

Labor groups contends the law, which would curb union rights, will lower wages.

House sponsors of Missouri right-to-work bills include, from left, state Reps. Charlie Davis, Rick Brattin, Holly Rehder and Bill White.
Credit Marshall Griffin | St. Louis Public Radio
House sponsors of Missouri right-to-work bills include, from left, state Reps. Charlie Davis, Rick Brattin, Holly Rehder and Bill White.

House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, has said he hopes to send a right-to-work bill to the Senate before the end of the month. Gov. Eric Greitens has pledged to sign such a measure, which would make Missouri at least the 27th right-to-work state.

Unions are countering with plans to launch an initiative-petition drive to put a proposal on the 2018 statewide ballot that would kill off a right-to-work law.

Just hours before leaving office Monday, outgoing Secretary of State Jason Kander approved for circulation 10 different versions of the initiative-petition proposal. Missouri AFL-CIO President Mike Louis says leaders soon will decide which one to circulate.

Under a right-to-work law, unions and businesses would be barred from requiring all workers in a bargaining unit to pay union dues or fees.

Business leaders praise right-to-work effort

Tuesday’s hearing before the House Committee on Economic Development focused on five pro-right-to-work bills. On Wednesday, the panel voted 8-4 to pass the proposal, with the vote along party lines:- Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed.

New state Treasurer Eric Schmitt, a former state senator from Glendale, testified in favor of “right to work.”

Schmitt told the committee that when he was a state senator, he spent time in meeting rooms with business executives looking for new states and communities in which to expand.

“The very cold, hard facts that are presented to you when you’re talking to them about economic development strategies and tax policy and labor reform, is that (right-to-work) is an undeniable lynch pin,” Schmitt said. “There is not a meeting that I had ever been in … where right-to-work wasn’t at the very top of the list. I’m not here to say it’s No. 1 on everybody’s list, but it is very high on everybody’s list.”

Greg Hoberock, chief executive of HTH Companies, offered anecdotal evidence to bolster his assertion that right-to-work could produce higher-paying jobs.

The Missouri Chamber has long lobbied for a right-to-work law. Dan Mehan, Missouri Chamber president and CEO, said: “It’s simple economics. If you make it more attractive for employers to provide jobs, you will see an increase in opportunities and economic growth."

He also pointed to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, which has released figures showing that "right-to-work states added 8.6 percent more new jobs in the last decade (2005–2015) compared to non-right-to-work states, which grew employment by 5 percent."

Other studies have shown mixed results. The Wall Street Journal has reported that job growth does tend to be stronger in right-to-work states, but wages generally are lower.

During Tuesday's hearing, Rep. Randy Dunn, D-Kansas City, singled out the pro-right-to-work bill sponsored by Rep. Holly Rehder, R-Sikeston. It would declare null and void any existing collective bargaining agreements that required all workers in a bargaining unit to pay dues.

Labor leaders have predicted that such a retroactive provision will end up in court.

Shannon Cooper is a former Republican lawmaker-turned-lobbyist for the Carpenters union based in St. Louis. He was among the opponents who seemed resigned to the expectation that the proposal will soon make it to Greitens’ desk.

“We’re upset,” Cooper said. “It reminds me of something my dad told me one time when he caught me and my brother throwing rocks at cars … and just before he got ready to whip us, he looked at us and he said, ‘I love you, boys, but I’m not real proud of you right now;’ that’s kind of how I feel today.”

Labor hopes to use Ohio victory as a model

State AFL-CIO President Louis said in an interview that he was confident Missouri voters would toss out the right-to-work law if a repeal gets on the ballot. “We are prepared and have a plan to move forward and start collecting the signatures and take this all the way to the people,” Louis said, “because we absolutely believe the people of Missouri do not want a right-to-work law in this state.”

Louis  points to a recent union victory in Ohio in 2011, when voters overturned a law — put in place by the Ohio legislature and Gov. John Kasich — that curbed the rights of public-employee unions. Since then, Kasich, a Republican, has backed away from any support of a broader right-to-work law.

Missouri's labor movement also is seeking to duplicate its statewide victory in 1978, when voters statewide rejected a right-to-work proposal. But Missouri’s political climate has changed since then. Its percentage of union workers, for example, is about half of what it was 40 years ago.

According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 15.5 percent of the state’s workforce was unionized in 1989, compared to 8.9 percent now. Labor leaders say that percentage is higher if teachers and union retirees are included.

State labor officials contend that about a third of Missouri voters live in households with a union member, a union retiree or a teacher.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.
Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.