Government & Politics

Greitens signs bill scrapping union requirements with Wisconsin governor looking on

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens
Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens

Gov. Eric Greitens on Tuesday signed legislation banning local governments from giving preferential treatment to union contractors on public construction projects. And sharing the stage with him when he signed it was Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

Walker, who was in St. Louis for a fundraiser as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, rose to national prominence after a series of fights with labor unions in Wisconsin and surviving a recall attempt in 2012. He was seen as a strong candidate for president in 2016, but he faded quickly in the crowded Republican field and dropped out months before states began holding primaries.

Greitens is widely considered to be eying a possible run for president one day, and Walker’s presence in St. Louis has rekindled chatter among Missouri politicos that he’s already begun courting an audience beyond Missouri.

“I don’t think there’s any other way you can sort of characterize this,” said Peverill Squire, a political scientist at the University of Missouri. “And I think that again it speaks to the governor’s potential ambitions.”

Squire called Greitens’ decision to bring in a governor from another state “very unusual” and said it probably has more to do with “marketing than governing.”

But Greitens, who promised during last year’s campaign to fight for much tougher regulations of labor unions, said in a prepared statement that he signed the legislation because so-called project labor agreements “decrease competition and drive up the costs of construction for the taxpayer.”

“Our top priority is more jobs for the people,” Greitens said. “We’re eliminating this sweetheart deal for special interests, protecting taxpayers, and creating more opportunity for all workers in Missouri.”

Missouri counties, cities and other local governments currently have the option to issue bid requirements mandating union working conditions for contractors if the projects are less than half funded by the state. The Republican-led General Assembly passed legislation earlier this year that would ban the practice, and any government that violates the law would lose state funding and tax credits for two years.

“This is a pro-taxpayer bill,” said state Rep. Rob Vescovo, a Jefferson County Republican who sponsored the bill. “It is not an anti-union bill.”

Sen. Bob Onder, a St. Charles County Republican who also sponsored the bill, said its implementation will end “waste and unjustified discrimination while using the free market to save taxpayer dollars.”

This marks the second major labor regulation Greitens has signed into law this year. In February, less than a month after taking the oath of office, Greitens signed a right-to-work bill into law. The bill, which Missouri Republicans had sought for decades, allows employees in unionized workplaces to opt out of paying unions for the cost of being represented.

Democrats and labor unions decried the legislation, saying it will lead to low-quality workmanship on local projects and lower wages for workers.

“Stripping union workers of the ability to negotiate for fair wages and provide a decent living for their families won’t create a single job or strengthen Missouri’s economy,” said House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty, a Kansas City Democrat. “To the contrary, the governor’s action today makes life much harder for thousands of Missouri families.”

Stephen Webber, chairman of the Missouri Democratic Party, said Walker’s invitation to the bill signing “only serves to show that Greitens is attacking local workers in order to impress big money and corporate donors from around the country.”

Sen. Jake Hummel, a St. Louis Democrat and secretary-treasurer of the Missouri AFL-CIO, said Greitens has appeared to be “running for higher office from the moment he was sworn in as governor. I just wish he’d focus on Missouri instead of his next campaign.”

Greitens ran as a political outsider who vowed to take on “corrupt career politicians” in the Missouri Capitol. But he’s long eyed a life in politics, dating back to 2009 when he reserved and numerous other political website domains.

In 2010, he was courted by Democrats to run for an open seat for Congress, an offer he said he never truly considered. And according “Charlie Mike,” a book by Joe Klein that prominently featured Greitens, he began showing interest in a run for governor in 2012, asking the board of directors of the charity he founded to take a leave of absence in order to explore the idea.

He finally threw his hat in the ring when he joined the race for Missouri governor in 2015. He established himself as a formidable national fundraiser, pulling in huge checks for his campaign from donors all over the country.

Greitens’ top campaign strategist last year was Nick Ayers, a California-based consultant who is also a close adviser to Vice President Mike Pence. Austin Chambers, Ayers’ protege, is Greitens’ senior adviser and is running his controversial political nonprofit.

The governor has also made several trips to Washington, D.C., since taking office, ranging from one-on-one visits with members of President Donald Trump’s administration to attending the ritzy Alfalfa Club Dinner, an event described by The Washington Post as a gathering of “some of the richest and most powerful people in the world.”

The Star’s Bryan Lowry contributed to this report.

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock