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Missouri AFL-CIO gears up for fight over right-to-work proposal

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 12, 2010 - Missouri's Legislature is yet to go back into session, and new members have yet to be sworn in. But groups keenly interested in influencing the body's direction are already active.

That's particularly true of the Missouri AFL-CIO, which has invited union leaders and supporters to attend a special meeting next Tuesday at the Truman Hotel in Jefferson City. The topic? To discuss a "strategic plan'' for battling the expected effort of some Republican legislators to change the state's labor laws and make it a "right to work" state.

Missouri currently is among a majority of states that allow "closed shops,'' in which unions can collect dues from all workers in a bargaining unit, whether or not the worker agrees to join the union. Workers in a bargaining unit who refuse to pay the dues within a specified period can lose their jobs.

Right-to-work states bar such agreements, so workers can decline to pay union dues and cannot lose their job for doing so, even if a majority of workers at a business has voted to form a union. As a result, right-to-work states have fewer unionized businesses.

State Senate President Pro Tem-elect Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, has said that making Missouri a right-to-work state is among his priorities. He believes the change would make Missouri more attractive and friendlier to business.

Missouri voters rejected such a right-to-work proposal in 1978, siding with labor's longstanding argument that right-to-work is really "right to work for less."

"This law they're proposing is not a roadmap to prosperity,'' said state AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Herb Johnson. Right-to-work states, he said, have not seen economic growth because of that law. He cited cases in Mississippi and Louisiana, where companies moved their operations because of huge new state subsidies or tax breaks.

Rather, Johnson said, companies are leaving states -- closed shop or right-to-work -- to move jobs overseas.

"The three plants that we lost in St. Louis (in recent years) didn't go to some right-to-work state, they went out of the country,'' Johnson said.

Johnson acknowledged that Missouri's unionized workforce is dramatically less than it was in 1978, when unions represented about 25 percent of the state's workers. That could make it tougher for labor to persuade voters to stick with the current law.

The Legislature has two routes for the right-to-work proposal. The state House and Senate can approve a measure, which then would likely be vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat who has not discussed the matter -- but who will likely rely on union support for his re-election bid in 2012.

A two-thirds vote in both chambers of the Legislature would be needed to override any Nixon veto, which could be difficult despite the historic Republican edges in the state House (106 Republicans to 57 Democrats) and Senate (26 Republicans and eight Democrats).

To skirt Nixon, the Legislature could opt to put the matter before voters -- but such a statewide election would likely have to wait until 2012. It would be up to the governor to decide if the proposal would go on the August or November ballot.

Putting a right-to-work proposal on the November 2012 ballot would likely set the state up for a major showdown between business and labor that could overshadow the candidates.

Johnson contended that a new push by Mayer and his allies is not about the economy but "a political attack on organized labor and our existence, to reduce our influence'' in government and politics.

A few years ago, state labor leaders met privately with then-Gov. Matt Blunt, a Republican, who agreed not to press a right-to-work effort during his tenure from 2005-2009. Blunt and Republican legislative leaders did make changes in the state workers compensation laws that labor generally opposed, ended collective bargaining for some state workers and made changes in the state's law to impose limits on lawsuit awards.

Still, the state AFL-CIO generally has few complaints about its relationship with Blunt -- particularly compared with the prospects of heightened battles now with some GOP and business leaders.

In the Nov. 2 election, labor suffered significant losses in Missouri. Although Johnson emphasized that the state AFL-CIO's political arm endorsed some Republicans, labor also backed the losing statewide Democratic candidates: U.S. Senate nominee Robin Carnahan and state Auditor Susan Montee.

In the St. Louis region, however, Johnson said that labor efforts "probably made the difference'' for two prominent Democrats: St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley and U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St.Louis. Both barely won re-election.

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