The Missouri House gave initial approval Wednesday to two bills barring unions from charging any fees to non-union workers.
The historic votes on bills known as “right to work” came despite long odds that either bill will actually become law. One more vote in the House is needed before the measures would go to the Senate, where opponents would probably filibuster. Beyond that is an almost inevitable veto by Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat.
One bill was advanced Wednesday on a voice vote. The vote on the other was 92-66, which is 17 votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto.
Right to work is the most contentious of disputes between management and unions played out in state legislatures across the nation. Supporters argue that it would encourage businesses to move to Missouri or expand in the state, which would drive economic growth.
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“Missouri’s lack of right-to-work protection has put us at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to attracting jobs to our state,” said Dan Mehan, president of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Opponents say that unions must represent everyone in a workplace, whether they are members of the union or not. Allowing some to receive those benefits without contributing to them isn’t fair, they say.
“Right to work weakens the ability of Missouri’s workers to band together to demand and receive fair wages, fair benefits and to have a safe workplace,” said Rep. Stephen Webber, a Columbia Democrat.
Much of the debate Wednesday morning focused on racism and diversity.
One of the right-to-work bills is sponsored by Rep. Courtney Curtis, an African-American Democrat from St. Louis County. During debate, he bragged that he has a previously perfect union voting record but was inspired to sponsor a right-to-work bill that focuses solely on construction unions because of “systemic injustices that have plagued the building trades for 20 years.”
Curtis’ bill focused solely on construction unions. By weakening those unions, Curtis said, “membership will ask for leadership change, and that’s the opportunity to get leaders” from the minority community.
“I’m fighting for equality,” Curtis said, “even from those in my party who have allowed this to go unchecked.”
Pushing back against Curtis were some of his fellow members of the Legislative Black Caucus, which argued that although racism must be addressed, it should not come at the expense of workers’ rights.
“I understand the underlying issues and the reasons (Rep. Curtis) filed this bill,” said Rep. Brandon Ellington, a Kansas City Democrat and chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus. “But I don’t see how a right-to-work law is going to help so-called minorities gain access.”
Ellington wants unions to put more emphasis on workforce diversity, and he is happy Curtis’ legislation sparked a conversation about that issue.