After nearly a year of debate, procedural hijinks and political maneuvering, the question of whether to make Missouri the country’s 26th right-to-work state will come to a head this month.
Neither side seems particularly confident in the outcome.
A bill passed by the General Assembly this spring would make it a misdemeanor for anyone to be required to become a union member or to pay dues to a labor organization as a condition of employment.
Its fate rests in the hands of 23 Republicans in the Missouri House and four in the Senate who voted against the measure in May.
Republican legislative leadership has to flip 17 of those votes in the House and two in the Senate to muster the two-thirds majorities needed to override Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of the bill — a herculean task on any issue, particularly one that inspires so much passion.
“I honestly have no idea what’s going to happen,” said Rep. Eric Burlison, a Republican from Springfield who sponsored the right-to-work legislation.
Opponents aren’t any more certain.
“At the end of the day I hope we will be successful in sustaining the veto,” said House Minority Leader Jake Hummel, a Democrat from St. Louis who also serves as the secretary-treasurer of the Missouri AFL-CIO. “But I can’t say for sure.”
So-called right-to-work laws are the most contentious of disputes between management and unions played out in state legislatures across the nation. Supporters argue they strengthen a state’s economy and encourage businesses to grow. Opponents say they simply weaken labor unions and lower wages.
Several states, including labor bastions Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana, have recently passed right-to-work laws.
In May, Missouri Republicans turned to a rarely used procedural move to snuff out a Democratic filibuster and send the bill to Nixon, a Democrat. He promptly vetoed it, setting up the showdown with the Republican-dominated General Assembly on Sept. 16 during the annual veto session.
Federal law already allows workers to refuse to join a union. But state laws like the one proposed in Missouri go one step further by allowing workers who decline union membership to also refuse to pay any fees to the union.
Unions say this allows some employees to receive the benefits of the contracts labor unions negotiate without having to contribute, weakening the union and threatening its existence.
“The strength of unions is their collective bargaining power,” Hummel said. “If we can’t fully collectively bargain, it hurts all Missourians. If union wages aren’t moving up, other wages aren’t moving up.”
Proponents counter that workers shouldn’t have to contribute to a union against their will.
“We truly believe the rights of workers are on the line,” said Ryan Johnson, president of the conservative nonprofit Missouri Alliance for Freedom.
Since lawmakers adjourned for the year in May, pressure on the 27 Republicans who opposed the right-to-work bill has come from both sides of the issue.
The Missouri chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group, promised to spend “six figures” on a TV ad campaign airing around the state, urging voters to contact lawmakers and convince them to back right to work. The group also has sent mailers into the districts of Republican opponents of right to work.
Numerous conservative groups have worked together this summer to sway lawmakers on the issue, Johnson said, organizing neighborhood canvassing and phone banks in the districts of Republicans who voted against right to work. They’ve also reached out to Republican lawmakers personally, Johnson said.
“I’m optimistic, but realistic,” Johnson said. “We’ve been successful at flipping a few, but I’m not sure all that effort is going to produce the desired results.”
Unions, not surprisingly, have poured resources into the fight.
An organization called Protect Missouri Families placed “Right to Work, Wrong for Missouri” billboards around the state. The group’s funds come from several labor unions, most notably the Carpenters’ District Council of St. Louis & Vicinity. Another labor-backed group, called Preserve Middle Class America, purchased TV airtime in St. Louis and Kansas City for ads criticizing right to work.
“If this legislation has done nothing else, it’s awakened our membership and our union leadership,” Hummel said. “For the first time in a long time, we’re all working on the same page and toward the same goals.”
Rep. Kevin Corlew, a Republican from Kansas City who voted against the right-to-work bill, said pressure from outside groups hasn’t swayed his position. His constituents, he said, have come out “10 to 1 asking me to oppose this bill.”
“Ultimately, I was elected to represent the people of my district,” Corlew said, “and they have made it clear the position they would like me to take.”
After rumors swirled last week that legislative leaders were trying to cut a deal with five Jefferson County Republicans who opposed right to work, one of those Republicans — Rep. John McCaherty of High Ridge — tweeted “I am not flipping. … And I am sure the others feel the same.”
Regardless of whether the votes are there to override the governor’s veto, Burlison said he intends to make a motion to consider the bill and hold an up-or-down vote.
“It’s important for people to know where we stand and that the issue isn’t going away,” he said. “If it fails, I will file the bill again next year and push it as far as I can. When I’m gone, there are plenty of (legislators) who are as passionate as I am who will be filing this bill.”
If Republicans aren’t successful in overriding the bill Sept. 16, the issue will likely percolate throughout next year’s legislative and statewide elections — especially the race for governor.
Because of term limits, Nixon won’t be running for re-election next year. If a Republican wins the governor’s mansion and the party keeps its massive legislative majorities, there won’t be many hurdles left for a right-to-work law in Missouri.
“Missouri will be a right-to-work state. Will it happen Sept. 16 or in January 2017, when a Republican can sign the bill into law?” Johnson said. “It’s a matter of ‘when,’ not ‘if.’”
Hummel said the labor movement is ready for a showdown in 2016.
“Our membership is trained and engaged in this fight now,” Hummel said. “This is going to come back and bite the supporters of right to work. Their goal was to weaken the labor movement. It’s re-energized us.”