In an abandoned warehouse in Springfield, Gov. Eric Greitens on Monday signed legislation making Missouri the country’s 28th right-to-work state.
Hours later, organized labor struck back by filing a rarely used referendum petition seeking to freeze the law and put it before voters in 2018.
Greitens’ signature was thought to be the final step in a decades-long push by Republicans and business groups to enact a right-to-work law in Missouri. But if the law’s opponents gather enough signatures, the battle will carry on.
In right-to-work states, such as Kansas, employees in unionized workplaces can opt out of paying unions for the cost of being represented.
Proponents of right-to-work argue it will bolster Missouri’s economy by making the state more hospitable to businesses.
Unions vehemently oppose right-to-work laws, arguing that the real motivation is political: Republicans want to weaken a political nemesis by allowing some workers to benefit from the contracts labor unions negotiate without having to contribute to covering the costs of those negotiations.
By signing the bill, Greitens fulfilled one of his major campaign pledges. Labor unions spent heavily to defeat Greitens last year based largely on his promise to enact right-to-work legislation. He also mentioned the idea in his State of the State address last month, saying that “Missouri has to become a right-to-work state.”
Greitens held multiple signing ceremonies for the bill Monday, the first being held in Springfield at an abandoned warehouse that Parker Briden, the governor’s press secretary, called in a press release “a far too familiar sight for many towns across Missouri.”
The owner of the warehouse, Gary Newkirk, told the Springfield News-Leader that his company went out of business five months ago, but that lack of a right-to-work law wasn’t to blame. While Newkirk said he supports the legislation, he told the newspaper that offshore competition was the real culprit.
Monday afternoon, Missouri AFL-CIO President Mike Louis and Missouri NAACP President Rod Chapel filed a petition for referendum with the secretary of state’s office. They have until Aug. 28 — the day the right-to-work measure is scheduled to go into effect — to collect enough signatures to place the law on the ballot. If they succeed, right to work won’t take effect until Missourians get the chance to have their say in 2018.
A “yes” vote would mean right to work becomes law, while a “no” means it doesn’t.
Citizens may call a referendum on a measure approved by the General Assembly and not vetoed by the governor as long as they collect signatures totaling 5 percent of the voters from two-thirds of the state’s congressional districts. That would appear to be roughly 90,000 signatures.
Although the referendum petition was regularly used in Missouri during the early 20th century, the last time it was used was 1982.
Of the 26 times a referendum has been placed on the ballot, voters have rejected actions by the General Assembly all but twice.
Even if the referendum is successful, lawmakers can return the very next session and pass right to work again. But Louis says a rejection by the voters should give legislators pause.
“I think if the voters turn out and reject right to work, lawmakers will have to think twice before trying again,” Louis said.
In addition to Monday’s referendum petition, Louis has previously filed several versions of an initiative petition that would ask voters to amend the state’s Constitution to essentially outlaw right-to-work laws. Louis said the decision about which to pursue — constitutional amendment or the referendum — has not yet been made.
On the other side, Dan Mehan, president and CEO of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, called the bill signing a “historic accomplishment.”
In time,” Mehan said, “I think even the people who opposed this change will come to appreciate how it helped provide better jobs for Missouri workers.”