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Former House Speaker Now Lobbying Against 'Right To Work'

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When Republican Steve Tilley was speaker of the Missouri House, he flatly told fellow Republicans that he would not bring up any bills to make Missouri a "right-to-work" state.

At the time, Tilley said publicly that he viewed the issue as too divisive and potentially destructive to Missouri Republicans. He also discounted the arguments of "right-to-work" advocates who said that such a law would create jobs.

Now, the Missouri AFL-CIO has hired Tilley as a lobbyist to block this session’s "right-to-work" efforts of his successor, Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka.

“They wanted to prove they’re taking (the legislative push) seriously and wanted to go about it differently than in the past,’’ said Tilley in a telephone interview Friday, referring to his new employers. “I know the process. I have relationships with members of the General Assembly in both parties.”

Tilley, a Republican from Perryville, is leading a team of lobbyists who, sources say, have been assembled to focus on several dozen Republican legislators in swing, suburban districts. Those lawmakers are expected to be less enthusiastic about Jones’ drive to get a "right-to-work" bill through the House within a few weeks.

The other lobbyists include some from the firm of Bardgett & Associates, one of the top lobbyist operations in Jefferson City.

Such a behind-the-scenes fight could be politically divisive within the Republican Party as well, pitting the current and former House speakers against each other.  Some see any success by Tilley as harming any plan by Jones to use "right to work" in his likely bid for statewide office in 2016.

In an interview, Tilley declined to discuss specifics. But he did acknowledge that his hiring was tied to his longstanding agreement with labor when it comes to "right to work" – and labor’s view that Jones and his allies were serious about getting a bill through the House this session.

When he was speaker, Tilley said that he tried to focus on issues on which labor and business could work together. That approach apparently won Tilley longstanding loyalty from labor.

Said Mike Louis, secretary-treasurer of the Missouri AFL-CIO:  “The Missouri AFL-CIO has always enjoyed a good working relationship with Steve Tilley, from his time on the House floor to his service as speaker of the House.”

“His willingness to support Missouri’s working families and look for bipartisan solutions to create jobs in our state has earned our respect,” Louis added. “Now we look forward to looking forward with Steve and his team. It is time for this legislature to start focusing their attention on real priorities like job creation instead of unnecessary and unfair 'right-to-work' bills.”

Under “right-to-work,’’ unions and businesses are barred from requiring all workers to pay dues and membership fees should a majority vote to organize.  Advocates of the law say it will encourage more businesses to move to Missouri.  Opponents say the law drives down wages.

Several bills have been filed this legislative session to put "right to work" into effort.  At least one of the proposals would instead put the matter before voters this fall. Labor defeated a 1978 ballot proposal to make Missouri a "right-to-work" state, but union membership in Missouri is lower now.

Missouri labor leaders became concerned when Jones and his allies held a House hearing on "right to work" during the first week of this legislative session, signaling that they would push for an early floor vote. Tilley was hired within the past week.

The assumption is that Tilley and his team will be charged with delaying any House vote or, at minimum, tamping down House support.  Jones would need 109 House votes to override the expected veto of Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat with close ties to labor.

The Senate is cooler to the issue, with President Pro Tem Steve Dempsey saying that "right to work" is not among that chamber's top priorities.  Senate Democratic leader Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City,already has said her camp will likely filibuster the issue should it get onto the Senate floor.

In contrast to Jones, Tilley enjoyed an unusually friendly relationship with labor during his tenure as speaker in 2011 and 2012.  Those cordial relations were among the reasons Tilley, now 42, had been an early favorite in his planned statewide bid in 2012 for lieutenant governor. He dropped out in late 2011 because of family issues, but he has retained some of the hefty campaign bank account he had raised.

More recently, Tilley has generated some complaints from Republican ranks over his campaign donation to Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, a Democrat running for governor in 2016.Tilley has said the contribution reflected their longstanding friendship.

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