Barbara Shelly

The right-to-work debacle in Missouri

Construction unions, among others, vehemently oppose a right-to-work law in Missouri.
Construction unions, among others, vehemently oppose a right-to-work law in Missouri. The Associated Press

Update: The Missouri Senate passed a right-to-work bill at around 7 p.m. Tuesday after an eight-hour debate.

The vote was 21-13. Like a similar House vote in February, the count is short of what it would take to override a veto by Gov. Jay Nixon.

At a stop in Kansas City on Tuesday, Nixon indicated a veto was likely.

“I don’t support right-to-work and I don’t support taking power away from folks for collective bargaining,” he said.

Nixon added that he hadn’t seen a demand among regular Missourians for a right-to-work law. “I’ve sat across the table from a lot of folks and it hasn’t been an issue,” he said.

The Senate’s nine Democrats did a good job on the filibuster. They were joined in the filibuster and the “no” vote by four Republicans, including Sen. Ryan Silvey of Kansas City, North, who noted that many of his constituents were union members.

Some people thought the filibuster might continue until adjournment on Friday, but Senate leaders demanded a vote. That’s their prerogative but it’s regarded as a heavy-handed move that breaks down collegiality in what is supposed to be the legislature’s deliberative body.

So, after a procedural vote in the House, Republicans will have achieved something they’ve long wanted: a right-to-work bill passed by the Missouri General Assembly. The chances of it ultimately becoming law are still dubious, but the contentious issue illustrates the high stakes in the 2016 governor’s race.

Posted Tuesday: Everyone who predicted bedlam if the Missouri Senate tries to pass a right-to-work bill in the final week of the legislative session can take a bow.

You have been proven correct, and it’s only Tuesday.

Hundreds of people flooded the Capitol Monday night as a Senate committee attempted to hold a hearing on a bill that would permit workers who choose not to join a union to waive a fee for representation. That means a worker could reap the rewards of union-negotiated wages and benefits without paying for union services.

People opposed to the bill outnumbered those who wanted to testify in favor of it by about, oh, 200 to one. And the committee proceeding was distracted by the boneheaded refusal of the chairman, Sen. Mike Parson, to allow cameras in the hearing. This resulted in the confiscation of at least one person’s cell phone and the spectacle of Senate doormen hovering around in an attempt to spot miscreant filmers.

Parson, who is running for the GOP nomination for governor, at least relented on his initial decree that taping of the proceedings would also be banned.

Progress Missouri, a liberal group that monitors the Missouri General Assembly, has filed a lawsuit as a result of being barred from filming other committee hearings. Rather than argue the point, legislators ought to concede it. This is the 21st Century. Public officials who don’t want to be filmed doing their jobs should find themselves a cubicle in the private sector.

But the filming controversy was simply a distraction to the big distraction, which is the right-to-work bill itself. There is no outcry among businesses in Missouri for such a law. But right-to-work is an article of faith for groups that set the ideological agenda for the Missouri legislature. Most prominent is the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate-funded, anti-worker group that equips lawmakers with model legislation. Including a right-to-work bill.

The Missouri Senate has a great deal of work to finish this week. It should move on an ethics reform bill, and take care of business like passing a bill to help Kansas City crack down on absentee landlords to let their properties decay. Heck, it should expand Medicaid eligibility, not that anyone is talking about that.

If a right-to-work bill moves to the floor, as expected, Democrats will filibuster until something gives — either their voices or the patience of Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey. He could end the filibuster and call for a vote, but a move like that would make cooperation on any bill for the rest of the session virtually impossible.

Should a right-to-work bill pass, it faces a certain veto by Gov. Jay Nixon. And most legislative watchers think a veto override attempt would fall short.

So why is the legislature wasting so much time in the stretch run on right-to-work? So that Republicans can prove their anti-union credentials to ALEC and other groups and to mega-funder Rex Sinquefield, is my guess.

Listen, union strength in Missouri is already diminished. If the General Assembly wants to finish them off, then lawmakers need to be prepared to spend money on job training and apprenticeships in the building trades; unions do that now. They’d better be ready to add more state workers to keep an eye on workers safety; unions do that, too.

And if lawmakers really care about inequality and raising families into the middle class, as unions do, they’d better be prepared to take steps to promote that. A higher minimum wage would be the place to start.

Everyone who predicted bedlam if the Missouri Senate tries to pass a right-to-work bill in the final week of the legislative session can take a bow.

To reach Barbara Shelly, call 816-234-4594 or send email to On Twitter @bshelly.