Missouri is one step away from being the nation’s 28th right to work state.
In a historic vote Thursday, the Missouri House approved legislation allowing employees in unionized workplaces to opt out of paying unions for the cost of being represented. The bill now goes to Republican Gov. Eric Greitens, who has promised to sign it.
“I believe this is better for individuals and it’s better for the state,” said state Rep. Bill White, a Joplin Republican. “This is not an evil bugaboo. This is not an anti-union thing.”
The 100-59 Missouri House vote caps a decades-long push by Missouri Republicans to enact a right-to-work law. The Senate approved the legislation last week 21-12.
In the past, efforts to pass the law were thwarted by Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto pen. But with Greitens now in the governor’s mansion, nothing stood in the way of GOP lawmakers finally pushing the bill across the finish line.
“This is one of the greatest days in the history of Missouri” said Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, a Joplin Republican.
With the public gallery of the House filled with union supporters, Democrats tried one last gambit: An amendment that would put the right-to-work law on the 2018 statewide ballot for voter approval.
But Republicans easily beat back that effort, saying voters already spoke on the issue when they sent super majorities of GOP lawmakers to the Missouri House and Senate last year.
Proponents of right-to-work laws argue they strengthen a state’s economy and encourage businesses to grow. They point to data such as a U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis report that found right-to-work states saw 8.6 percent job growth between 2005 and 2015, while employment in non-right-to-work states grew only 5 percent.
“Right to work is not an experiment,” said state Rep. Charlie Davis, a Webb City Republican. “It’s proven as a job creator.”
Critics of right to work laws, which they call “right to work for less,” say they simply weaken labor unions and lower wages. A 2014 report by a University of Missouri-Kansas City economics researcher determined that Missouri’s shifting to a right-to-work state would result in an annual loss of $1,945 to $2,547 per household across the state.
Federal law already allows workers to refuse to join a union. But right-to-work laws go a step further by allowing workers who decline union membership to also refuse to pay any fees to the union.
Unions say this allows some employees to receive the benefits of the contracts that labor unions negotiate without having to contribute to covering the costs of those negotiations, weakening the union and threatening its existence.
“I just don’t get this idea that right to work leads to all this job growth,” said state Rep. Jon Carpenter, a Kansas City Democrat, “when in reality, if that were true, Mississippi wouldn’t be the poorest state in the country.”
State Rep. Rocky Miller, a Lake Ozark Republican, said wages may be lower in right-to-work states, but so is the cost of living.
“But they have jobs,” Miller said, which drew laughter from union members in the public gallery. “I’ve never said this is a magic bullet. But this is very important for large manufacturing to come to the state.”
Although Republicans were the ones pushing the bill, a handful of GOP lawmakers voiced their opposition.
“I represent a union district. I will vote for them like I have in the past,” said state Rep. Kevin Engler, a Farmington Republican. “I appreciate the union members coming here today, but we are going to lose this vote.”
One provision critics did manage to get into the bill is a so-called “grandfather clause.” The right-to-work law will not apply to contracts that are already in place. It will affect those unions only when their contracts are renewed, extended or amended after the law goes into effect Aug. 28.
Kansas has been a right-to-work state since 1958. Recent years have seen a spate of right-to-work laws enacted in states where unions once flourished, including Michigan and Indiana in 2012, Wisconsin in 2015 and West Virginia in 2016.
A national right-to-work law was introduced Wednesday in Congress.
Greitens, a first-term Republican, said during his State of the State address that right to work was one of his top priorities. He has not signaled when he’ll sign the bill, although it’s anticipated he’ll do so early next week.
“We have to sign right to work,” he said last month. “Missouri has to become a right-to-work state.”
In anticipation of Missouri lawmakers passing a right to work law, Missouri AFL-CIO President Mike Louis filed several versions of a 2018 ballot measure that would ask voters to repeal the law and ban the legislature from putting it back in place.
State Rep. Rory Rowland, an Independence Democrat, said his father was member of the Teamsters union but died a few years ago.
“I am glad he’s not around to see this historic day,” Rowland said, “because it would have broken his heart.”