With just two full days left in the legislative session, Missouri Republicans are working to find support for a slate of labor reform bills criticized as an effort to undermine unions.
Lawmakers were still negotiating Wednesday evening on a bill repealing the state's prevailing wage law, which sets a minimum wage for public construction projects. It's one of several labor union bills Republicans are hoping to pass before the regular legislative session ends Friday at 6 p.m. Another would require public sector union members to vote every few years to maintain union representation and require more public filings from public sector unions.
At the same time, a bill cementing the controversial "right to work" policy in the state constitution was racing through the General Assembly. That passed the House 93-54 on Monday and is waiting for a Senate committee hearing.
Those hoping to repeal the prevailing wage law argue it artificially inflates the cost of doing business for local governments that need to build roads, schools, jails and other public projects. Lawmakers were negotiating on a possible compromise to tweak the prevailing wage Wednesday but had yet to reach an agreement.
"Right now, the political subdivisions of our state — cities, counties, school districts — are being forced by law to overpay for public construction projects so that school buildings are costing more," said Bob Onder, R-St. Charles County.
Onder and Sen. Dan Brown, R-Rolla, said prevailing wage was especially problematic in rural parts of the state where contractors pass on public projects because of the hassle. They said rural areas' prevailing wages end up being more like those in metropolitan areas, where the cost of living and market wages are generally higher.
Brown said Dent County, which falls in his district, has been waiting for a prevailing wage repeal to build a new jail.
“If we don’t repeal prevailing wage, they’re just not going to build it," Brown said. "They can’t afford to.”
Supporters of the law argue doing away with prevailing wage would harm workers. Sen. Jacob Hummel, D-St. Louis said the law aims to protect the state's workers from out-of-state companies that could undercut Missourians' wages. Hummel is secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO.
"If we’re wanting to have a race to the bottom, this is a good way to start,” Hummel said.
Senators could settle on a compromise "anywhere from total repeal to some type of changes that the industry and some other interest groups can live with," Hummel said.
A bill brought by Rep. Jeffery Justus, R-Branson, that would totally repeal prevailing wage passed the House and is awaiting a vote by the full Senate. Brown is sponsoring it in the Senate.
Sen. Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, is sponsoring a bill that would lay out a more specific criteria for calculating the prevailing wage and exempt projects worth $500,000 or less.
Missouri senators also struggled to find common ground Wednesday evening in a long debate over whether public sector unions should have to get approval by members every few years to continue representing them. The bill, brought by Onder, would also require "paycheck protection," a policy that public sector unions get workers' approval annually to use dues money for political purposes.
"I think that regular accountability to members, I think will make sure that unions are really doing what they are meant to do, which is represent workers in negotiations regarding wages and hours and working conditions and grievances to really make sure that they're accountable to their workers instead of pursuing other agendas," Onder said.
Opponents argued it would undermine unions.
“There’s nothing good in it for workers — nothing," said Mike Louis, president of the Missouri AFL-CIO.
Senate Democrats held the floor for hours Wednesday night while Republicans and Democrats negotiated over the bill. Democrats strongly opposed the bill, and Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh, D-St. Louis County, warned the purpose of the legislation was "to weaken public sector unions."
Hummel argued a public employer could stall when it comes time to renegotiate the union contract until members have to vote on certification to undermine the union's ability to retain its status.
“Why would I give you a contract?" Hummel said. "I’ll just drag my feet and then you’ll dissolve and I’ll just impose whatever I want.”
The bill would exempt some public sector unions that represent first-responders, like police officers, firefighters and emergency medical personnel. Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, pressed Onder on the reasoning behind the exemptions, which she called "hypocrisy at its highest level." She told Onder on the floor he wanted to "weaken the Democratic base as we know it."
“Because if you truly cared, you would make this across the board," Nasheed said.
Onder didn't give a clear reason why police were exempted, but said no bill was perfect. He said the original version would not have exempted first responders but some members were more comfortable doing so.
“Although this bill might not be where everyone would like it to be, I’ve had some very productive conversations," Onder said on the floor.