The push to make Missouri the nation’s 25th right-to-work state took a small step forward Wednesday as the House gave initial approval to legislation widely seen as a blow to the power of organized labor.
But only 78 lawmakers voted in favor of the bill.
That’s enough for first round approval but four votes short of the total needed for the bill to be sent to the Senate, which puts the future of the legislation in doubt. Nineteen Republicans joined Democrats in opposition to the bill, and nine Republicans did not vote.
After the vote, opponents of right to work celebrated that it fell short of the votes it will ultimately need for passage.
“Today’s vote should be a major wake-up call to the extremists who have been pushing this divisive agenda at the expense of Missouri’s middle class,” said Mike Louis, secretary-treasurer of the Missouri AFL-CIO.
The legislation, which seeks to prohibit union contracts in private sector workplaces from requiring employees to pay any fees to the union, is one of House Speaker Tim Jones’ priorities.
If the bill clears the House, it faces an almost inevitable Senate filibuster. If it wins approval in both chambers, it will be put on the August ballot, a strategy chosen by supporters to avoid the promised veto by Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon.
No worker can be forced to join a union. But labor unions must negotiate on behalf of all employees in a bargaining unit, even those who are not members.
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 employees who choose not to join a union to opt out of paying any fees for representation.
Detractors, which include Democrats and labor unions, say it’s wrong to allow “freeloaders” to not support the unions that represent them in negotiations and arbitration. They call the idea “right to work for less,” arguing that it drives down employee wages and negatively affects workplace safety.
“Instead of looking for ways to create jobs, we’re spending our time lowering the standard of living for Missouri,” said House Minority Leader Jacob Hummel, a St. Louis Democrat.
Supporters say right-to-work laws make states more attractive to business and ultimately increase employment in both union and non-union workplaces. They contend it is wrong to force unwilling workers to contribute to unions.
“This debate is about individual rights,” said Rep. Eric Burlison, a Springfield Republican. “Workers in our state deserve a right to choose what’s in their best interests.”
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. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says union membership in Missouri has dropped from 15.5 percent in 1989 to 8.6 percent last year.
Burlison is confident that Republicans will be able to muster enough support to send the bill to the Senate.
But even if they don’t, Burlison said, he still considers Wednesday’s vote a victory.
“Even if this is where it stops, to get a majority of people to vote for it, I think that’s an absolute victory.”