Government & Politics

‘Paycheck protection’ labor reform faces court challenge from seven Missouri unions

Missouri state capitol in Jefferson City
Missouri state capitol in Jefferson City Big Stock Photo

A sweeping labor reform bill that added restrictions to most public-sector unions violates the Missouri Constitution by constraining free speech for some unions and giving preferential treatment to others, a coalition of unions argues in a lawsuit filed Monday.

Seven unions representing teachers, maintenance workers, patient care professionals and some public safety employees filed suit in St. Louis County circuit court to challenge Missouri’s new “paycheck protection” law passed this year by the General Assembly and signed by then-Gov. Eric Greitens. The bill imposes new requirements for unions to get certified to represent workers, withhold dues and fees and negotiate contracts. It also prohibits union members from picketing.

Under the law, unions would be required to get permission every year before collecting dues and other fees from members’ checks to use for political purposes. The union would have to be re-certified every three years, a hurdle the unions say is too high.

The lawsuit argues the new law violates several rights guaranteed under the Missouri Constitution, including the freedom of speech, association and petition; equal protection; protection against impairment of contracts and the right to organize and bargain collectively.

“This is another attempt by legislators backed by corporate interests to attack our right to speak up about the student needs, class-size, wages and benefits,” Lori Sammelmann, an instructional coach in the Ferguson-Florissant school district near St. Louis, said in a release.

Public employees’ contracts, under the law, would have to include language barring employees not only from going on strike, but from any form of demonstration or picketing. Those who engage in a strike interrupting work or even picket over any personnel matter “shall be subject to immediate termination of employment,” the law says.

The lawsuit says that “violates plaintiffs’ free speech and association rights by singling out penalized unions and prohibiting them and their members from engaging in even peaceful, non-obstructive picketing.”

Rep. Judy Morgan, D-Kansas City, a former teacher and teachers union steward, said the law violates workers’ right to free speech, noting that employees don’t picket during work hours. Picketing, she said, provides an opportunity for public workers to air grievances with employers.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been picketing in my life as a teacher,” Morgan said.

Defending the law on Monday, state Sen. Bob Onder, R-St. Charles County, said, “There are times at which we can contract away things that we would otherwise have a right to do. And there is something special about going to work for the public sector for a position of public trust — whether it be working for a state, teaching our children — and that we feel is rationally a part public employees can agree to in the course of taking a public sector job.”

Morgan disagreed, saying, “Who wants to give up their constitutional rights? Why would anybody be asked to give up their constitutional rights?”

The bill exempted public safety unions wholly or primarily representing emergency medical personnel, firefighters, nurses and physicians, dispatchers and law enforcement officials. That exemption, the lawsuit argues, “imposes a raft of harsh restrictions on a disfavored set of public-employee labor organizations and their members, while completely exempting a more favored set of public-employee labor organizations.”

“As a result, (the bill) strips many — but not all — public-sector employees of collective bargaining rights and contractual protections, infringes on their rights to attain and retain union representation, and denies them vital free speech, association and petition rights,” the lawsuit says.

Unions claim in the lawsuit that the law violates equal protection requirements in the Missouri Constitution.

“There is no conceivable permissible justification for this new legal distinction between favored ‘public safety labor organizations’ and penalized unions,” the lawsuit says.

Initial versions of the bill included public safety unions, but the lawsuit claims they were exempted to garner more support.

Onder sponsored the bill in the state Senate and argued public safety employees are different from other public employees.

“Different unions representing different employees are different, and it makes sense that the law treat them differently.”

But, the lawsuit argues, some workers have public safety jobs but are represented by unions, including plaintiffs in the lawsuit, that do not primarily represent public safety employees.

One fire and two police departments mentioned in the suit have employees represented by the Laborers’ International Union of North America and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which are primarily made up of members not in public safety roles.

Onder said those employees should be exempted under the law.

Onder carried the “paycheck protection” bill in the Senate, saying at the time, “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.”

Opponents had argued it would undermine unions.

“There’s nothing good in it for workers — nothing,” said Mike Louis, president of the Missouri AFL-CIO.

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