Missouri union vote focuses on absent lawmakers

04/13/2014 9:33 AM

04/13/2014 9:34 AM

In legislative lingo, it’s called “taking a walk.” A lawmaker walks out of the chamber – sometimes to a nearby office, sometimes to get out of town – and avoids taking a vote on a politically sticky issue.

During eight years in office, Missouri Rep. Rick Stream said he never walked out on a vote – until this past week, when it came time for the state House to vote on a measure that could limit union fees.

“It’s the first vote I’ve ever missed deliberately,” Stream said.

Stream wasn’t alone. Eleven of the 108 House Republicans voted neither “yes” nor “no” when the so-called right-to-work legislation won initial approval 78-68. But they could get another chance to take a stand. To advance to the Senate, the measure will need to pass a second House roll call with at least 82 “yes” votes.

The legislation is a priority for Republican House Speaker Tim Jones, though not so much for some of his GOP colleagues. Nineteen Republicans joined minority party Democrats who voted in lock-step against the legislation.

The measure would prohibit businesses from adopting union contracts that require all workers – no matter whether they are union members – to pay union-bargaining fees. Twenty-four states have enacted similar laws, including the traditional labor strongholds of Michigan and Indiana in 2012.

Missouri is one of the top targets nationally this year for right-to-work supporters. But labor unions are fighting back, recently drawing a couple of thousand people to the Missouri Capitol for a rally against the legislation.

Stream’s reluctance to cast a vote highlights the perceived political risks in the labor issue for Republican lawmakers, especially for those representing diverse districts, facing re-election or hoping to run for higher office.

Stream, of Kirkwood, is barred by term limits from seeking re-election this year. But he is one of several Republicans running for the office of St. Louis County executive, which no Republican has won since 1986. If Stream is the GOP nominee, he likely will need to pick up support from some traditionally Democratic voters, such as union members.

Although union membership has declined significantly in recent decades, it remains more than one-third higher in the St. Louis area than the statewide average. So Stream doesn’t want to ruffle rank-and-file union members.

“I want to keep that option open with labor,” Stream said.

During last Wednesday’s vote on the right-to-work legislation, Stream said he was meeting about education issues with Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, in the senator’s office. Stream said he didn’t hear the bell signaling a House vote but wouldn’t have responded even if he had.

Unlike Stream, Rep. T.J. Berry remained in the House chamber but merely pressed the “present” button on his voting box.

“I did not want to be absent – that’s not the way you should handle things,” Berry, a Republican from Kearney, said in an interview. He added: “I just hadn’t made the decision yet.”

Berry’s district is near a Ford assembly plant and has what he describes as “a heavy union percentage of people.” Yet it also has “a lot of businesses that are non-union and are competing with Kansas,” a right-to-work state, Berry said.

Berry was meeting Friday with local business owners who support the right-to-work legislation and with some constituents who oppose it. He also was awaiting the results of a telephone poll, which he paid $2,500 to conduct. The poll asked residents in his district whether they view the right-to-work legislation as a freedom of choice issue for workers or a freeloading scenario that lets some employees receive union-negotiated benefits without paying any costs.

Berry said he will be ready to vote if the legislation is taken up again. Stream said he will reassess what to do if there is another House vote, though he noted the bill appears unlikely to pass the Senate regardless of whether it clears the House.

Jones, the House speaker, said he will be talking with the 11 Republicans who didn’t vote the first time, seeking to persuade at least four of them to vote “yes” the next time.

“This is one of those very difficult issues,” said Jones, R-Eureka, “and everyone has to make up their own mind.”

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