Government & Politics

Missouri Republicans take on some public employee unions in ‘paycheck protection’ bill

For Missouri Republicans, not all unions are created equal.

A House committee on Monday signed off on legislation supporters have christened “paycheck protection” — and detractors call “paycheck deception” — that would require public employees to give permission before union dues are taken from their paychecks.

Just not all public employees.

Teachers, social workers and most other state or local government employees would be required to provide annual written authorization before dues or fees could be deducted from their paychecks.

But unions representing police, firefighters and other first responders would be exempt. The restrictions wouldn’t apply to them.

Critics of the bill say the political calculus is simple: Republicans want to weaken a political nemesis, but they don’t want to pick a potentially difficult fight with cops and firefighters.

It doesn’t hurt, those critics argue, that police and firefighter unions have historically bucked the trend of organized labor supporting Democrats.

“Republicans want to carve out a part of labor, put heavy burdensome regulations on them and hope they have a dramatic loss of membership that ultimately destroys them,” said Clark Brown of the Missouri State Council of Service Employees International Union.

Supporters balk at the notion that they are trying to target political opponents.

“This is about giving individual employees a choice,” said Rep. Holly Rehder, a Sikeston Republican sponsoring a version of the bill. “No one should have to give money to an agenda they don’t support.”

But with that in mind, why limit the choices for police and firefighters?

“I don’t like that, either,” Rehder said. “I think everyone should be included.”

Rep. Bill Lant, a Pineville Republican who is also sponsoring a version of the bill, agrees.

“If I had my preference,” he said, “it would cover all public employees.”

The problem, both Rehder and Lant admit, is the bill wouldn’t pass the Republican-dominated General Assembly if it included police and firefighters.

“Those exclusions have been put in there to make it more palatable,” Lant said, “to make it easier for legislators to support.”

If lawmakers can approve the bill this year, Rehder said, “we can hopefully expand it down the road to include first responders and even private sector workers. I’ve learned that you have to do things in baby steps around here. And that’s what we’re doing.”

Two years ago, a version of the bill passed the General Assembly but was vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat. Supporters fell short of the votes needed for an override. Among several problems he raised with the bill, Nixon singled out the exclusion for first responders. He argued that by treating some public sector employees differently than others without a compelling reason, the bill was likely in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Opponents of the bill point out that unlike private sector unions in Missouri, membership in a public employee union is already voluntary. Workers can quit a union at any time.

Requiring an annual written reauthorization would only mean more paperwork and place an unreasonable burden on public employee unions, said Rep. Stephen Webber, a Columbia Democrat.

“This bill is about putting burdensome regulations on groups that the Republican Party doesn’t want to hear speak out,” he said.

There is also fear among opponents that paycheck protection is setting the stage for a fight in subsequent years in Missouri to push for a so-called right-to-work law — the most contentious of disputes between management and unions played out in state legislatures across the nation.

“If they can weaken one portion of labor, that helps them when they go after the rest of labor,” Brown said.

In right-to-work states, such as Kansas, employees in unionized workplaces need not pay unions for the cost of being represented.

The House voted on a right-to-work bill last year, but couldn’t muster up the constitutional majority needed to pass it along to the Senate. House Speaker John Diehl, a St. Louis County Republican, has said he’d like to see another vote this year now that Republicans have increased their veto-proof supermajority.

Whether Republicans can corral enough votes this year to pass right to work — as well as override the governor’s inevitable veto — remains unclear. The chances of success are much higher, most agree, for the paycheck protection bill.

“I’m hopeful this is the year we can finally get it done,” Rehder said.

In response, union leaders are circling the wagons to oppose it yet again.

“We’re opposed to it, even if we’re exempt,” said Tony Kelley, president of the Missouri Council of Fire Fighters. “Frankly, this is just legislators trying to make it harder for unions to collect their dues.”

To reach Jason Hancock, call 573-634-3565 or send email to jhancock@kcstar.com.

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