JEFFERSON CITY - While a pro-business agenda has been fast-tracked by Missouri's Republican-controlled General Assembly this session, one issue has been pushed to the sidelines.
An effort to let workers refuse to join or pay dues to a union appears to have stalled once again. The chance of what supporters often call “right to work” getting to the floor in either chamber appears slim.
The spokesperson for Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, said right to work would not happen this year. Earlier in the year, at a mid-session press conference, Dempsey himself said many senators were passionate about the issue because they believe Missouri not being a right-to-work state puts Missouri at a competitive disadvantage.
“But they also recognize that we have a Democratic governor who has said he’ll veto the legislation and that we simply lack the votes to move it forward over his objections,” Dempsey said.
The right-to-work bills would make it illegal for joining a union to be a requirement for employment. This would mean an employee with a union employer could refuse to pay union dues.
Opponents argue such measures are intended to destroy labor unions because individuals could get the benefit of collective bargaining by the union without paying dues. Supporters counter that employees should have the freedom to join a union or not if they choose and that right-to-work states are more attractive to businesses.
Division in the business community
One obstacle for right-to-work legislation has been the lack of unified support for the efforts in the business community.
Some businesses oppose right-to-work legislation.
Emily Martin, president of Aschinger Electric, said she’d declined to join the Missouri Chamber of Commerce because of its support for right to work. Aschinger Electric is an electrical contracting firm based in St. Louis. She said her company has been unionized since it started.
“It’s a business decision as to whether I want to contract with organized labor,” Martin said. “In our work with our skilled trades, there are benefits to contracting with unions.”
She said the unions invest in training and provide a pool of skilled labor to draw on when the company needs to expand.
The Associated General Contractors of St. Louis also opposes the legislation. President Len Toenjes said the passage of such legislation would put members’ current union contracts at risk and could cost them millions and even force them to shut down.
“Many of our contractors have existing multi-year labor agreements,” Toenjes said. “In the short term there will be potential for a lot of out-of-state competition coming in. The potential would be to harm businesses that have been in St. Louis for decades.”
The St. Louis Regional Chamber has not taken a position on right to work. Large companies with a presence in Missouri, such as Emerson Electric, General Motors and Express Scripts, declined comment on the issue.
Some statewide business groups in Missouri have endorsed the legislation, including the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Businesses.
Tracy King, the Missouri Chamber of Commerce’s vice president of governmental affairs, said the group would continue to lobby for right-to-work legislation despite the lack of priority Republican leadership has given the issue. She said a survey of members done during the 2011 legislative session showed only 13 percent of their membership opposed right to work.
“It’s not a 100 percent, but it’s a predominant number,” King said.
She also referred to Indiana and said discussions with the chamber’s counterparts there indicated more businesses were choosing Indiana because of the change.
“Site selectors and consultants won’t even consider locating in a state that isn’t right to work,” King said. “The right to work will continue to be a priority.”
Different routes for right to work
House Speaker Tim Jones, R-St. Louis County, said he was encouraged by a vote taken April 24 on a bill dealing with public safety issues. The House passed the bill, which included a provision prohibiting law enforcement agencies from requiring police officers to pay dues to a union. That bill is still awaiting a hearing in the Senate.
Jones said he doesn't think the Senate is interested in moving forward with right to work.
"The House has made a very clear statement that we are for worker freedom," Jones said. "I'm not sure there's a reason to move if the Senate is not interested."
Jones said during the mid-session press conference that other business-supported economic development legislation, such as prevailing wage and a measure that would prohibit unions from automatically deducting fees from worker paychecks, were steps toward making Missouri a right-to-work state.
“I think the time is coming. If Michigan and Indiana can do it, I don’t see why Missouri cannot either,” Jones said. “If you look at other states that have taken on these challenges, it’s been a multi-year process. I think these are significant building blocks in moving us toward an ultimate worker freedom state.”
While multiple bills were introduced in both the House and Senate with the goal of making Missouri a right-to-work state, there are two main avenues for reaching that goal.
While some of the bills would head to the desk of Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon if passed, other bills would take an alternate route to avoid the possiblity of a guberantorial veto. Those bills would do so through the inclusion of a referendum clause that would place the issue on an election ballot without requiring the governor's approval.
In the House, a committee substitute with a referendum clause for right-to-work legislation passed out of the Workforce Development Committee, but has been in the Rules Committee since April 16. Since having committee hearings on Feb. 12, the right-to-work bills in the Senate have not seen any action.
The measure passed out of the House Workforce Development Committee would place the issue on the August 2014 primary election ballot.
Before the committee passed the measure, Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Lant said Republican leadership was continuing to research right to work and whether the issue should go before voters.
“As a caucus we decided it would be unfair to foist something on the voters of Missouri that they don’t want,” said Lant, R-Joplin, in March.
Rep. Eric Burlison, R-Springfield, said one question was whether to move forward on the bill containing a referendum clause, which he sponsored, or one without it.
“It’s a matter of weighing what you can actually accomplish,” Burlison said in March. “Is it easier to put it on the ballot or override a veto?”
Burlison sponsored the same measure last year, but in a press conference then-House Speaker Steve Tilley said Burlison was wasting his time. This year, Burlison said, Jones is a co-sponsor. Burlison said he thought the passage of similar laws in Michigan showed a trend toward more support for the legislation.
In 2012, Indiana expanded its right-to-work laws to include private sector employers. Previously, it only applied to school employees. Michigan became the 24th state to enact right to work.
Jones cited those states as evidence that right to work could be a pro-business economic development tool.
“You are seeing growth and job creation in both of those states,” Jones said.
But right now, it doesn't look like the legislation will go anywhere -- at least not in the less than three weeks left in the session.
"We'll be moving a lot faster and earlier next year and hopefully the Senate will show some interest," Jones said. As for debating right to work on the floor of the House this year, "we'll have to wait and see."