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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

On the Trail: How South County legislative races could matter in the 'right to work' fight

Sen. Scott Sifton, D-Affton, listens as fellow senators thank each other for their work.
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Sen. Scott Sifton, D-Affton, listens as fellow senators thank each other for their work at the end of th 2016 legislative session. Sifton has been a firm opponent of right to work.

State Sen. Scott Sifton knows a thing or two about high-stakes elections.

The Affton Democrat took part four years ago in the most competitive legislative race in the state against incumbent Sen. Jim Lembke. A lot more was on the line than just flipping the 1st District Senatorial seat: Lembke and Sifton were divided on a host of key issues, and Sifton’s victory gave the smallish Democratic caucus more firepower to achieve their agenda.

As he runs for re-election in a district that’s been historically close, Sifton sees similarly high stakes in his contest against Republican Randy Jotte. But it’s over an issue in which he and Lembke found agreement: “right to work.”

“Let’s not make any mistake about it,” Sifton said. “We’re talking about a district where less than 1 out of 100 voters have decided each of the last three races in this seat. The decision voters make in this race will very likely determine whether this is a right-to-work state or whether we continue to be a state where we have, frankly, better wage earning powers for working families than right to work states do.”

Right to work is shorthand proponents use to describe a proposal that would bar unionized entities from forcing employees to pay dues as a condition of employment. Candidates for politically competitive south St. Louis County seats, such as the 1st District Senate seat, have often opposed bills that they perceive to be hostile to labor unions. In fact, Lembke’s opposition to “right to work” prompted a number of labor unions to endorse his re-election bid over Sifton.

But that’s not the case this time around. 

Randy Jotte
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Republican state Senate hopeful Randy Jotte supports right to work.

“I believe that any healthy organization always has accountability from the top down and the bottom up,” said Jotte. “And I believe that an organization that requires dues or fees from individuals without an opportunity to say ‘vote yes or no’ in those dues, it’s not healthy. There’s not that accountability. So I support right to work. And I do think that [the vast majority of] unions will still do very well.

“There will be accountability measures if there’s membership that’s unhappy about how funds are spent or what leadership is doing,” he added. “They’ll have to be responsive to that.”

A lot of moving pieces are at play, but there’s a real chance that Sifton could be right about the outcome of the 1st District race being crucial in the right-to-work fight.

The biggest variable is the result of the governor’s race: If Republican and right-to-work supporter Eric Greitens wins, then the only thing that matters is whether there are 82 House members and 18 senators who support right to work. And there will be, meaning it’s almost fait accompli that right to work will become law.

But the path gets a lot trickier if Democrat Chris Koster wins, especially since he would almost certainly exercise his veto power. In that scenario, proponents will need at least 23 senators and 109 representatives for an override. This scenario may explain why so much money from labor unions that oppose right to work and large donors (like TAMKO President David Humphreys) who support it are going into legislative contests.

Right-to-work proponents are within striking distance of bridging the override gap in the Senate. Twenty-one Republican senators voted for right to work in 2015. If Republican Bill Eigel wins the 23rd District contest over Democrat Richard Orr, he’ll replace somebody (former Sen. Tom Dempsey) who opposed right to work. If both Jotte and state Rep. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, win their Senate races, right to work proponents would have enough senators to override a veto. And that doesn’t take into consideration the somewhat remote possibility that a senator who voted against right to work changes his or her mind.

“Make no mistake about it, because I’ve seen it happen,” Sifton said. “As a freshman Republican in the Senate, it is incredibly difficult to buck your leadership. Incredibly difficult.”

House gap

Still, even if right-to-work backers get their way in the state Senate race, there’s a pretty sizable gap to close in the Missouri House to override a hypothetical veto. 

State Rep. Cloria Brown
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
State Rep. Cloria Brown voted for a "right to work" bill that didn't make it into law.

Only 96 representatives voted for right to work when it came up for a veto override last year. And while dynamics of House races are way too unpredictable to get a firm sense of whether there will be 109 right-to-work supporters in the House next year, it’s clearly going to take a lot of work.

One key building block in the road to 109 is in the 94th District House. That’s where GOP Rep. Cloria Brown and former Democratic state Rep. Vicki Englund are waging electoral battle for the fifth straight election cycle. 

Brown voted in favor of right to work when it came up for a vote in 2015. While Brown’s parents were both in labor unions, Brown said last year that the policy would provide “checks and balances.”

“I believe that unions are necessary – they are a check against poor bosses,” Brown said during her 2015 appearance Politically Speaking. “However, I think you need right to work, because it is a check and balance for the worker against bad union bosses. … If the union boss is doing something that they shouldn’t, the union workers really can’t do much about it. Under right to work, you can say ‘I’m taking my money and I’m leaving.’”

State Rep. Vicki Englund
Credit File photo by Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
State Rep. Vicki Englund opposes right to work.

Englund said during a 2015 Politically Speaking appearance that she strongly opposes right to work, noting that her father was a machinist. She said the issue is a “very big deal for South County.”

“I’m told that the 94th District probably has more retired union households and active union members than possibly any other district,” Englund said. “When I’m out knocking on doors, I can’t tell you how many people where [right to work] is the first thing out of their mouths.”

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics. 

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.