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Pro & con: As ‘right to work’ nears certain reality in Missouri, what will it actually be like here?

RebelAt | English Wikipedia
The Missouri Capitol building.

The Republican near-sweep of statewide offices in the Nov. 8 election in Missouri opens the path for a lot of changes in the state but none is as assured as the passage of “right to work” legislation, which would alter the ability of labor unions to require dues from members to work certain jobs.

In fact, on Dec. 1, Rep. Bill White pre-filed what could be considered the first “right-to-work” bill, House Bill 42, which would prohibit employers and unions from requiring members of a bargaining unit to pay dues.  Rep. Holly Rehder also pre-filed similar legislation, House Bill 91.

Related: 'Right to work' among bills pre-filed on the first day Missouri legislators could act

It should be noted, as it has stood for 40 years, employees have not been required to pay dues that go to political causes — they can opt to pay only administrative dues.

Missouri governor-elect Eric Greitens has said passing such legislation is one of his top priorities upon entering office. Even if he did disagree with the law, he would face veto-proof Republican majorities in both Missouri House and Senate, who if they voted along party lines would support the law.

So, what will right-to-work actually look like in Missouri?

According to St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jo Mannies, the question is not if ‘right to work’ will become a reality in Missouri but how quickly and how big?

Missouri’s General Assembly will convene in early January, and Mannies said this issue is probably one of the first they’ll take up as a “show of strength” and “to unify the Republican base and bring Greitens into the fold.” Mannies expects that right-to-work will be a decided reality in Missouri by early February 2017.

“The only question is how expansive it will be,” Mannies said. “In some states, police and fire are exempted because Republicans have always been trying to reach out to police and fire groups and they don’t want to tick them off. Some of the bills that are introduced may be blanket, including every union or association. Other bills might just do private sector. Some may do everything but police and fire. Some may be police, fire and teachers.”

“Right to work” first became an issue to debate in Missouri in 1978, when it was put on the ballot and voters rejected it. That’s part of why this is being pursued in the legislative arena, Mannies said: No one is sure if voters would go for this because some Republican voters, former union members, might still oppose it.

Of course, the labor landscape in Missouri is a little different now than it was in 1978. Back then, 16 percent of workers were members of a union. Today, only 8-9 percent of the labor force qualifies as part of that category. Many still involved in unions today are public employees. Private sector unions are rare, due to dwindling factory work in the state.

Pros and cons

Proponents of “right to work” say that it increases the number of jobs and that it does weaken the political heft of organized labor. Opponents of “right to work” say it pushes down wages and reduces the ability of unions to go to bat for their workers.

On St. Louis on the Air, we heard from a proponent and an opponent of right-to-work laws. Daniel Mehan, the president/CEO of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, advocates for Missouri to become a “right-to-work” state.  Ed Finkelstein, the publisher of the St. Louis Labor Tribune, is an opponent of such laws.

Finkelstein argues that 'right to work' laws are being presented as a distraction to greater economic issues in Missouri.

“'Right to work' is being presented by the companies as a panacea for all our problems,” Finkelstein said. “People are hurting in Missouri. We understand that. They’ve got problems. They’re not making the kind of wages they would like to make. The reality is that ‘right-to-work’ is an employer’s law. It will hurt workers because it will drive down wages. It will hurt families because family incomes will go down. It will hurt education because there won’t be enough money going around. You know the old saying ‘hey, squirrel!’ to distract? Well, 'right to work' is here to distract from our real problem.”

Mehan, on the other hand, argues that right-to-work is one way to boost Missouri’s competitive footing when it comes to creating new jobs.

“It will help the state of Missouri with our competitive footing,” Mehan said. “We’ve seen states that have turned to right-to-work encounter job growth. Not hurting workers, not hurting families, but job growth. If you look at the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, both right-to-work and non-right-to-work states have had the same wage growth for the last 10 years. If you want to counter our problems in the economy in the state of Missouri, right to work is one tool to get there. It is not the panacea. It is not a silver bullet for all problems we face. What it is, is allowing people to take a job without paying dues.”

Listen as the two discuss their different stances and what workers, employers and the state could gain or lose from such legislation:

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.
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