Government & Politics

Big year for Big Business ahead in Missouri legislature

Republican leaders in the Missouri General Assembly will likely unleash a wave of legislation that unions have fought off for years.
Republican leaders in the Missouri General Assembly will likely unleash a wave of legislation that unions have fought off for years. The Associated Press

Al Bond is bracing for a very tough year.

As executive secretary of the St. Louis-Kansas City Carpenters Regional Council, Bond knows that Republican legislative leaders are about to unleash a wave of legislation he and his union have fought off for years. And unlike in the past, when Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto pen stopped many of these bills in their tracks, Republican Gov.-elect Eric Greitens has vowed to sign them.

“We have a mandate to do several things,” said Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, a Joplin Republican, “and we will be pressing those issues very quickly.”

The GOP agenda includes tougher regulations on unions and more lenient regulations on business. They want to make it harder for workers to sue an employer and hope to cut the length of unemployment benefits.

Greitens “will sign these things in a big grand ceremony like he did something great,” Bond said, “when really all he’ll be doing is hurting working families in Missouri.”

Dan Mehan, president and CEO of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, says unions may paint a dire picture of what’s to come, but in reality the laundry list of legislation is simply an effort to bring balance to a system that has hurt Missouri employers for years.

“It’s trying to make Missouri a saner place to do business,” Mehan said, later adding: “You’re going to see employers from around the world look at Missouri as a place that restored its business-friendly climate.”

Helping fuel the GOP takeover of Missouri’s government was David Humphreys, a Joplin businessman who, along with his sister and mother, spent more than $11 million during the 2016 campaign.

Humphreys’ money helped oust labor-friendly Republicans from the legislature and elect Greitens as governor. So it comes as little surprise that first on the 2017 to-do list will likely be one of his top priorities: passage of a so-called right-to-work law.

Right to work is the most contentious of disputes between management and unions played out in state legislatures across the nation. In right-to-work states, such as Kansas, employees in unionized workplaces need not pay unions for the cost of being represented.

Supporters argue the law strengthens a state’s economy and encourages businesses to grow.

“We want to make it so that workers decide their fate, not a labor boss,” Mehan said.

Opponents, who dub the law “right to work for less,” say it simply weakens labor unions and lowers wages.

“When everyone pays their fair share,” Bond said, “we all make gains together.”

Republicans are also expected to push “paycheck protection” legislation, which makes it more difficult for public-sector unions, such as those representing teachers and state workers, to collect fees and dues.

Some versions of the bill would make it illegal for public employees to even voluntarily have union dues deducted directly from their paychecks. Others simply mandate that public unions would need written permission from their members annually to use any dues for political purposes.

Union leaders argue that they shouldn’t be required to spend resources to constantly hound their membership for money, since unlike private-sector unions, the decision of whether to pay fees or dues to a public employee union is already voluntary. Workers can quit a union at any time.

Another bill that has passed in previous years but never with enough support to override Nixon’s veto would make it more difficult to prove discrimination cases against former employers.

Workers who claim discrimination in wrongful termination lawsuits currently have to prove that bias against them was a “contributing factor” in their dismissal. Republicans hope to change it to a “motivating factor.”

Supporters of the change say it would put the state in line with federal law, reduce frivolous lawsuits and ensure more timely and fair resolution for legitimate discrimination cases. But critics say it rolls back decades of progress on civil rights by making it easier for an employer to discriminate and get away with it.

Republicans are also expected to once again pass legislation cutting the length of the state’s unemployment benefits.

The bill ties the length of benefits to the state’s unemployment rate. So the lower the rate, the shorter the length of benefits. If the statewide unemployment rate falls below 6 percent, workers could only receive benefits for 13 weeks, down from 20 weeks currently.

Lawmakers approved the change to unemployment benefits last year over the veto of Nixon. But the state Supreme Court threw the new law out over procedural problems with how it was passed.

Bond says all these bills, and others on the GOP agenda, add up to an assault on Missouri workers. Lawmakers are trying to “put unions out of business,” he said, which will ultimately drive down wages and working conditions for everyone.

Mehan says workers will benefit from the changes because “we’ll see an uptick in economic activity, which translates long term into higher incomes and better way of life for the state of Missouri.”

Assistant Senate Majority Leader Bob Onder, a St. Charles County Republican, said the 2017 session is a historic opportunity.

“A tsunami of voters,” he said, “expressed a desire to do something differently and give Republicans an opportunity to lead and to govern and do things that were obstructed by a Democratic governor and his veto powers.”

The 2017 session promises to be tough, Bond said, but unions must press forward.

“We’re going to continue to fight,” he said. “We’re not going anywhere. It’s important that working families are relevant in Jefferson City and continue to have a voice.”

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock