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Labor leader confident court ruling won't hurt campaign to block 'right to work'

File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Updated at 11:15 a.m. June 26 with comment from Ashcroft — Missouri’s top labor group says the union effort to go to the ballot box next year to block “right to work’’ remains on course, despite a judge’s ruling Thursday that changes the ballot language.

The state AFL-CIO already has collected “tens of thousands of signatures,’’ said spokeswoman Laura Swinford. But those signatures were on petitions that contained the original summary ballot language that had been approved by Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft.

Missouri AFL-CIO President Mike Louis said in an interview Friday that his lawyers are confident that the signatures should still be good. Even so, unions filed an appeal on Friday in hopes of overturning the judge’s action.

The petitions, with roughly 90,000 signatures, must be submitted before Aug. 28 in order to temporarily block Missouri’s implementation of a “right to work’’ law approved this year by the General Assembly and Gov. Eric Greitens. Under the law, unions and employers are barred from requiring all workers in a bargaining unit to pay dues or fees.

Labor groups hope to get a proposal on the November 2018 ballot to overturn the General Assembly’s action.

On Thursday, Cole County Judge Daniel Green ruled that the ballot language was misleading. So he reworded it.

The new summary reads:

Shall the people of the state of Missouri reject Senate Bill 19 (“Right to Work”), enacted in 2017, which: (1) prohibits as a condition of employment membership in, or payments of dues or fees in full or in part to, a labor organization (union); (2) makes any agreement or activity violating its provisions illegal and ineffective; and (3) allows legal remedies for anyone injured as a result of violations or threats of violations of its provisions?

Green’s ruling means that voters would have to vote “yes’’ in order to block the law. Louis fears that the public might be confused about which way to vote.

“But if it does stand, it’s our job to message properly and to let people know that even though the way it sounds is very contradictory, the answer is ‘yes,’ I don’t want right to work in Missouri,” Louis said.

Labor lawyers are confident that the existing petition signatures won’t have to be tossed out, because of last year’s state Supreme Court ruling in a different battle over a similar dispute over ballot language. The judges ruled that the signatures in that case weren’t affected by the change in the ballot wording.

In the current case, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation is among the supporters of the Missouri lawsuit challenging the unions’ original ballot wording.

Foundation Vice President Patrick Semmens said in a statement that unions “are so intent on misleading the public about their attempts to overturn Missouri’s Right to Work law” because of the dues money that could be lost.

Semmens praised Green’s ruling as “an important step in defending the right of Missouri employees to work without being forced to pay tribute to a union boss.”

Meanwhile, Ashcroft said Monday that he formally asked Green to postpone enforcement of his ruling, until any appeals have been dealt with by the higher courts. 

"Although we are disheartened with the court's ruling, we are carefully considering our legal strategy,” Ashcroft said in a statement. “We remain committed to protecting the right of individuals to collect signatures while ensuring compliance with the referendum process required by the Missouri Constitution.”

Louis with the Missouri AFL-CIO said its members are already energized by the looming state battle over right to work, and won’t be discouraged by the legal fight.

Follow Jo on Twitter: @jmannies

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