Hearing on Missouri 'right to work' bill attracts crowd

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. | A standing room only crowd spilled into the Capitol hallway Wednesday to watch a Missouri House committee hearing on a bill barring payment of union dues as a condition of employment.

Union members sat silently as the House Workforce Development committee debated the merits of "right-to-work" legislation. The measure's sponsor, Rep. Eric Burlison, said the measure would increase Missouri's economic competiveness. He said companies are not relocating to Missouri because it is not a "freedom to work state."

The committee's Democrats argued that the measure would allow people to "freeload" by garnering benefits from a union contract but not paying any dues. Burlison countered that his measure would strengthen unions.

"The fact that members can leave makes the association better," Burlison, R-Springfield, said.

Burlison also said his measure was about individual freedom, by allowing people to choose if they want to pay dues.

David Cook, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 655, called such rhetoric "disingenuous."

Under current law, people working at union jobs don't have to join the union but must pay union dues and fees for the organization's core functions such as collective bargaining.

Republicans House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, and Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder stood and watched the committee hearing. House Minority Leader Rep. Jacob Hummel, D-St. Louis City, participated in the meeting, asking questions.

When discussing whether an employee at a union shop agrees with a majority of the union's members on a contract, Hummel dismissed the notion that a minority member would have grounds to not pay dues.

"The people that didn't vote for you, do they have to pay the taxes that pay your salary?" Hummel asked Burlison.

In a December interview with the Associated Press, Jones, a co-sponsor of Burlison's bill, said it would be hard to pass "right-to-work" legislation without the governor being onboard. Jones cited Michigan's passing of "right-to-work" under Republican Gov. Dan Snyder.

Although Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon opposes the legislation, Nixon would be sidelined if Burlison's measure passes the Legislature. Instead of going to the governor, it would be submitted to voters for approval this November.

Missouri would become the 25th state to adopt "right-to-work" legislation if passed by voters.

The hearing was so packed that not everyone got to testify Wednesday morning. Public testimony was scheduled to resume Wednesday afternoon.