A long-running effort to tighten regulations on Missouri labor unions will come to a head this year with a statewide vote so heated that even its election date could be swept up in party politics.
Labor union-backed organizations and business and Republican groups are organizing opposing sides for a head-to-head vote on whether the state should adopt "right to work," which would allow employees at unionized companies to opt out of paying fees for union representation if they don't belong to the organization. Employees also could not be compelled to join a union or pay fees as a condition of employment.
The monumental vote has drawn huge fundraising totals, including dark money donations, and Republicans may move up the election to give right-to-work proponents an advantage. A Republican-sponsored bill in the Missouri General Assembly would move the vote from the November general election to the August primary, a date thought to have strong Republican turnout likely to approve right to work.
“I sense that they’re trying to thwart the will of the people by changing the date of the election," said Quiema Spencer, a union pipe-fitter in Kansas City.
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The General Assembly approved right to work last year, but a coalition of labor organizations gathered more than 300,000 signatures to temporarily halt the issue and put a referendum on the ballot for voters to decide.
We Are Missouri, a political action committee, has raised more than $7.1 million as it campaigns to throw out the right-to-work law.
On the other side, three PACs supporting right to work have raised more than $2.6 million. Freedom to Work has raised $1.3 million, Liberty Alliance has raised $832,000 and Missourians for Worker Freedom has raised $500,000.
"We would all expect for an important measure like right to work to be on a November ballot," Spencer said. "That's when all the important elections are."
Rep. Holly Rehder, a Sikeston Republican and the bill's sponsor, said the move was not aimed at finding a receptive voting audience for right to work. She said she wanted to get the vote "out of the way" as quickly as possible and open the state to the economic boost proponents say the policy will bring. The halt on right to work, she said, is detrimental.
"This stifles what we're trying to do with this kind of being in a holding pattern," Rehder said. "To me, the longer we wait, the longer we're missing opportunities, so I'd like to get it done as soon as possible."
But the date of the vote would likely affect voter turnout.
Robynn Kuhlmann, an associate professor at the University of Central Missouri, said Republicans tend to be the "primary heavyweights" more likely to show up for an August vote. Even if union leaders urge their members to vote down right to work, they might not be able to overcome the Republican right-to-work hopefuls, she said.
Far more voters have cast ballots in Republican primaries in recent years, including in 2012 when Jay Nixon won reelection as a Democrat. Missouri, however, has an "open" primary system, which allows voters to cast ballots in either primary no matter their party affiliations, so the number of votes cast by members of each party is unclear.
“I guess if I was trying to cut people’s pay and benefits, I would want to do it when less people are going to the polls, too," said Jessica Podhola, communications director for We Are Missouri, the PAC opposing right to work.
Perhaps more important than the referendum are proposals to amend the Missouri Constitution to approve right-to-work policy.
“Let’s say ... voters reject (right to work)," said Matt Panik, lobbyist for the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry. "That’s fine, the legislature can come back in a special session or early next year and pass right to work again.”
A constitutional amendment, however, would not be easily overturned. Groups with petitions on either side of right to work have been approved to gather signatures but have not yet turned those in to be approved and placed on the ballot as a constitutional amendment proposal. Any amendment vote wouldn't be moved up to August under Rehder's bill.
A constitutional amendment would hold more weight than a change to Missouri statute. If Missouri voters rejected right to work on a referendum ballot but approved a similar constitutional amendment, Missouri would be a right to work state. But that difference in outcomes would raise the potential for litigation.
Voter turnout for right to work could also have implications in candidate races. Kuhlmann said U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, could see a bump in support from union members turning out to vote against right to work if the vote takes place in November.
"In such a tight race, half a percentage point, a quarter of a percentage point matters," Kuhlmann said.
Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley is the Republican front runner to take on McCaskill.
If the right-to-work question moved to August, union members might not turn out in November because they wouldn't be energized by a ballot question affecting their paychecks, Kuhlman said. Critics of right to work point to lower wages and poorer benefits in states with limited union presence, a finding reported by the nonpartisan, progressive Economic Policy Institute.
"People always lean on the fact that you have to pay dues, but those dues help our leadership bargain for us so that we can have these good wages and great benefits," Spencer said.
Some proponents of right to work argue that non-members shouldn't have to pay union dues.
"We think if unions are doing a good job — again, the union employees will want to stay in the union and continue to pay those dues," said Panik, the Missouri chamber lobbyist.
Retired AFL-CIO lobbyist Herb Johnson said it was up to individuals whether to become a union member.
"But you can't come into a place, a union shop, and decide you're going to accept all the benefits, all the representation and not pay a dime for it," Johnson said.
In Missouri, 9.7 percent of the workforce belongs to a union, but the organizations represent 10.7 percent of workers, which includes those who don't belong to the union but benefit from its collective bargaining. The state ranked 26th in union membership in 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Podhola said union supporters are preparing for either election date. She said some volunteers, like Spencer, had been working dozens of hours every week on the issue. The group also is hiring support staff to turn out the vote.
"I had a volunteer who worked himself into the hospital, for goodness sake, and these folks understand exactly what is at stake here," Podhola said.
Right-to-work proponents, too, will be working to turn out their voters to approve the referendum later this year.
Asked of Rehder's effort, House Speaker Todd Richardson, a Poplar Bluff Republican, was noncommittal.
"It's something we wanted to make sure we had the ability to have a discussion about as session moves on," Richardson said. "That's why you saw some pieces of legislation filed near the end of the filing deadline, but we haven't made any decisions on those yet."