The fight over “right-to-work” legislation in Missouri has been on the political back burner for 30 years.
Some lawmakers think that’s about to change.
The state’s recent efforts to woo Boeing Co. to build its new jetliner in St. Louis with $1.7 billion in incentives could bring the debate to the forefront, since the aerospace giant began shopping around for a new home for its Washington state manufacturing facility after negotiations with its local machinist union collapsed.
Now a legislative goal that Republican leaders have flirted with for years may become one of the most contentious showdowns of the upcoming session. And the local effort may get a boost from national interests eying a fight with labor in several states.
“It’s notable that the reason Boeing is looking to build this project in a different state is because of the acrimonious relations with labor unions,” said House Speaker Tim Jones, a Eureka Republican.
“If we are awarded this project, it will show that Missouri is competitive,” he said. “If not, we’re going to have to analyze where the project goes and what policies we can look at in the future.”
Unions adamantly oppose right-to-work laws, which essentially bar labor agreements that require workers to pay for union representation as a condition of employment. They say the laws drive down employee wages and negatively impact workplace safety.
Detractors of the idea have dubbed it “right to work for less,” and on average wages are lower in right-to-work states. Yet those states also tend to have lower cost of living and unemployment rates.
“We know it’ll be a battle, but we’ve been working hard for a long time to prepare,” said Mike Louis, secretary-treasurer of the Missouri AFL-CIO.
Labor unions negotiate on behalf of all employees in a workplace — even those who are not in the union. Non-union employees don’t have to pay dues, but they must pay fees to cover the cost of representation.
A right-to-work law would allow those employees who choose not to join the union to opt out of paying any fees for representation.
All states bordering Missouri except Illinois and Kentucky have right-to-work laws. If Missouri loses out on the Boeing project, right-to-work backers contend, labor law will surely be a factor.
“If we’re serious about bringing jobs to Missouri, we need to do this,” said state Rep. Eric Burlison, a Springfield Republican who once again is sponsoring a version of the legislation.
The debate has little to do with jobs, the AFL-CIO’s Louis argues.
“Make no mistake, this is about weakening labor unions,” Louis said. “Nothing more.”
The last time Missouri seriously debated right to work was in 1978, when voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposed ballot measure.
Since then, however, manufacturing jobs and union membership have declined. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, union membership in Missouri has dropped from 15.5 percent in 1989 to 8.9 percent last year.
Missouri had 224,000 union members in 2012.
Republicans have long eyed right-to-work legislation, but the idea has gotten little traction. That’s because despite large GOP legislative majorities, enough Republicans opposed the idea to make an override of the inevitable veto by Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon impossible.
In May, a bill aimed at making it harder for public-sector unions to collect dues cleared the Missouri House, but 19 Republicans joined the Democrats in opposition — leaving the bill 24 votes short of the two-thirds majority needed for a veto override.
Burlison acknowledged that right-to-work supporters likely don’t have the votes to overcome the governor’s opposition. That may mean putting the issue directly before voters on the November 2014 ballot, he said.
“We may just have to bypass the governor altogether,” he said, “and let voters decide.”
Efforts to put the issue on the ballot are expected not only in Missouri, but also in Ohio and Oregon, with the help of national conservative and business groups.
“If a labor-related issue was on the ballot in multiple states at the same time, labor would have to diffuse their resources,” Chris Littleton, a consultant and former tea party leader who is backing the right-to-work initiative in Ohio, told The Associated Press.
Several leading national advocates for right-to-work laws held a closed-door strategy session with Missouri Republicans during the 2013 legislative session in the hopes of bolstering support for the idea. That meeting was caught on tape by the liberal activist group Progress Missouri.
Unions are bracing for the national fight, too, and Louis said Missouri Republicans are hesitant to put the issue on the ballot for fear that it could have widespread political ramifications across the state.
“Republicans know that organized labor will work extra hard to get our members out, and that will put their own re-election hopes in jeopardy,” he said.
While supporters of the change acknowledge they face steep odds, they point to the fact that Michigan — a state that ranks fifth among the states in terms of the percentage of its workforce that belongs to unions — passed a right-to-work law in 2012.
“If they can get it done in Michigan,” Burlison said, “I don’t see why we can’t do it here.”
KANSAS CITY STAR